Hong Kong - A baby seal lies helpless on the ice. Towering above it, a man wields a club, poised to land the blow that will smash the seal's skull.
Moments later, the seal is dead, its body dumped on a mound of freshly-skinned carcasses. Its skin is thrown on a pile of bloody furs to be shipped back 270 kilometres to the Canadian east coast to be sold for around 42 US dollars each.
It's a highly emotive image. To animal campaigners, it highlights what they claim is a cruel, inhumane slaughter of defenceless mammals. To the seal fur traders and the Canadian government it depicts a humane and strictly controlled hunt that is part of a valuable industry.
Rebecca Aldworth, director of Humane Society International, is hoping the Hong Kong and China public will see the cruelty and add their support to the anti-seal-hunt campaign.
But why Hong Kong? According to Aldworth, the former British colony has the power to help end the commercial seal hunt in Canada.
Aldworth was recently in Hong Kong to muster support for a campaign to ban the seal trade in the city.
Such a move, following similar bans in countries all over the world, would close one of the few remaining markets for seal products from Canada and could bring about an end to the hunt, she says.
The United States ended its trade in seal products in 1972 and the European Union is set to follow suit in the near future with regulations banning the trading of seal products except in cases where hunting techniques are guaranteed humane.
The move will be a major blow to the Canadian seal product industry costing it millions of dollars, says Aldworth, leaving only three of its existing main markets open: Norway, China and Hong Kong.
In 2006, the global market value of seal pelts amounted to around 13 million US dollars to Canada, according to Canadian government statistics. Of this value, one third, around 4.1 million US dollars, went to Europe.
Compared to Europe, the Hong Kong trade in seal fur is relatively small, worth around 100,000 dollars in 2006. However, the China market is much larger and was valued at around 700,000 dollars.
There is also a growing market in seal oil which was valued 1.2 million dollars in China and 60,500 dollars in Hong Kong in 2007.
With Europe closing, Aldworth believes the seal industry will turn its attention to Hong Kong and China. Banning the trade in Hong Kong would not only close the market here, but would have a knock-on effect on China, drying up one of its main trade routes.
"This is why we are here. If we can convince them [the Canadian government] that markets even here are closing it will be enough to compel the Canadian government to make a final decision to end the hunt."
The move to Hong Kong and China marks the latest stage in campaign spanning more than 40 years by the organization. It is a campaign which has attracted much attention and gained the support of a number of celebrities, including Paul McCartney, Australian entertainer Rolf Harris and British rock star Morrissey.
During that time millions of young seals have been killed for their fur. The meat is sold mainly for animal consumption while the oil is used in the production of Omega 3 health supplements.
The hunt takes place every spring by licensed fisherman on the ice throes off the coast of Canada. They kill using rifles or a club with a hook called a hakapik, targeting mainly the harp seal which accounted for 225,000 or almost all of Canadian seals killed in 2007.
The seal fur industry and the Canadian government claim independent studies show the methods used are as humane, and often more humane, than those in commercial slaughterhouses.
It says the system of setting a yearly quota on the number of seals killed keeps the population of harp seals at a healthy level. It points to the fact that the seal is not an endangered species and the population stands at a healthy 5.5 million, triple the population of 1970.
"No seal is killed in Canada until it's an independent animal, until the mother has left it, and it is living on its own. It's illegal to kill otherwise," said Loyola Sullivan, ambassador for Fisheries Conservation in Canada.
The Humane Society International claims the industry is worth relatively little money to the Canadian economy and that most Canadians - including fishermen - are opposed to the industry.
However, the government claims surveys shows 60 per cent of Canadians are in favour of a responsible hunt which accounts about for 35 per cent of the annual income of sealers in small coastal communities.
To Aldworth, it is a question of ethics and Hong Kong, as an importer of seal products, has a responsibility to stop the hunt.
"We believe Hong Kong could set the standard in Asia by banning seal products. Such a ban would both eliminate existing trade and a future one.
"Moreover it would be the incentive needed for the Canadian government to seriously consider a federal buyout of the commercial sealing industry and provide fair compensation to those affected. It would be the nail in the coffin of the industry and this inhumane hunt." (dpa)
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