Jennifer Lee will not strike you as the typical environment activist – that is, if your impression of environment activism involves boat ramming and chaining yourself to trees.
TOC caught up with this soft-spoken and determined founder of two animal rights movements, Project: FIN and Project: WILD, and found out a bit more about how Singapore has come so far in her never-ending battle against the sharks fin trade – one presentation and roadshow at a time. And by all counts, Jennifer has much to be cheerful about, even if the road ahead is still long.
Very briefly, what are Project FIN and Project WILD about? Which came first and how did one lead to another?
I grow up a typical animal lover since young, and as the years pass, I realised that as much as I love animals, I do not truly understand “conservation”. A lot of things that I saw or read about on TV or the internet were tucked in a rusty corner of my mind; somehow they don’t register. I realised this is the same for many of us living here in Singapore.
In my younger days, I knew that there are some controversies surrounding sharks fin, but I didn’t really know what exactly was wrong with it. When the dish was served at weddings, as with most others, I didn’t reject it, albeit eating it with some uncertainty. It’s the typical mentality of not wanting to waste food that is already served.
I watched the movie “Sharkwater” some years back and the movie helped me understand the issue a lot better, but my “awakening” came one day when I saw a chinese restaurant advertise “baby sharks fin” on their menu. That was over 4 years ago, and it made me realise how serious this problem was here in Singapore. By killing babies, we were effectively wiping out future generations of sharks and not giving them any chance to reproduce. Where will this take us?
I wrote to the company and started speaking to many friends, including people who were volunteering time for animals, who were supposed to know and care about conservation. I was met with nonchalance, mockery, and was also faced with a lot of invalid points raised as a result of a whole slew of misconceptions about sharks and their role in the ecosystem. The lack of understanding and support towards conservation was sorely lacking then, and I decided to do something to change things here in Singapore. Project: FIN was founded.
Fast forward two years later, while buying a bottle of traditional chinese medicine (TCM) drink from a store, I chanced upon a bottle innocently labelled as “Cooling drink”, and one of the ingredients listed in fine print was “Cornu Saigae Tartaricae” – the scientific name for the critically endangered Saiga Antelope. The products from these peculiar looking antelopes seem to be widely available for sale in Singapore.
I spoke to many who were under the impression that the horns of these antelopes can be removed without killing the antelopes, while others believe that the antelope horns would fall off by themselves, like deer antlers. Some believe that these horns are harvested from farmed antelopes that can’t be endangered, and many have never thought about where these horns come from. It has never crossed the minds of most that the animals are killed for their horns, much less to say that the antelopes are critically endangered and now extinct in China.
Almost everyone I know believed that endangered animals are banned in Singapore and hence it should be ok to consume anything that is available for sale as long as it is not illegal. They did not realise that many endangered animals are not automatically protected from trade, because a ban takes more than just evidences of an animal’s endangerment. Government agencies who are members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) must pull a majority two-third vote in order for a ban to come into place under CITES. Endangered animals will not be banned from trade if they do not receive sufficient votes in support of a ban.
All these wrong assumptions made me realise the urgent need to educate, which brought about the start of our new wildlife conservation arm, Project: WILD.
On a day-to-day basis, what do you do for each of the Projects?
We don’t have a fixed schedule for both Project: FIN and Project: WILD. Our team mates and volunteers come from all walks of life, and we give our time at our free will to make a difference for animals. We are fully self-funded. On top of being active on our social media pages, we also run roadshows, movie screenings and school and corporate talks. I also contribute articles to the media and websites to help raise awareness for conservation.
Are you gaining much traction with Project FIN? It seems not so long ago that people were laughing at turning down a bowl of the broth.
Shark conservation has definitely gained a lot of traction here in Asia. Hong Kong seems to be in the lead, with some surveys showing that a large majority will not consume nor order sharks fin. I don’t have specific data to measure this change in Singapore, but just over 4 years ago when I first started Project: FIN, I find myself standing alone most of the time on the sharks fin issue. I get bombarded by consumers who fiercely defend the dish.
Today, most of the people I know have laid the soup down for good. Most of my friends now host their weddings without sharks fin. We saw the exact opposite just a decade ago.
Also, just four years ago, companies including several government agencies, banks and large corporations served sharks fin at their Chinese New Year lunches, and ran shark-fin related promotions. Some years ago I even received a sharks fin hamper from a bank partner who was not aware of my work in shark conservation. Many reputable firms have now included marine conservation in their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes. Numerous organizations including hotels, banks, airlines, supermarkets and even restaurants have since implemented company-wide sharks fin bans, and some took additional steps to ensure that they sell or serve only sustainable seafood at their events.
Four years ago, you must be kidding if you don’t serve sharks fin at your restaurant. Today, you gotta be kidding if your restaurant still doesn’t provide an alternative soup to replace sharks fin! Four years ago, people believe that sharks fin is a flaunt of generosity. Today, it is a flaunt of ignorance. Companies that still serve it at their corporate events today do so risking consumer boycott and a multitude of bad press that will affect their corporate image. Today, the tide has turned.
Do you think the industry for sharks fin is gradually turning for the better? What has been your personal experience with them so far?
Recent studies have shown a decrease in the fin trade in general. In Hong Kong, a report by WWF Hong Kong revealed that trade between Hong Kong to Mainland China has fallen 90% in 2013. Overall imports to Hong Kong fell 35% in 2013 as compared to 2012.
My general observation with local fin sellers is that many of them are selling less sharks fin compared to some years ago. I also observed that some of these shops also tuck their fin stocks to a less prominent part of their shop. Some of these sellers even told me that sales have dipped because sharks are becoming endangered and people now want to protect sharks.
We spoke earlier about BMAA. Can you share a bit on that and some of the other harmful things about sharks fin?
In Feb 2012, a study conducted by the University of Miami revealed alarming accumulation of a neurotoxin called BMAA in fin samples. BMAA is said to have been linked to neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig Disease (ALS). The study found concentrations of between 144 and 1836 nanogram per milligram (ng/mg) of BMAA in fin samples. A separate neurology study in 2009 showed BMAA concentrations of up to 256 ng/mg study in the brains of patients dying of Alzheimer’s and ALS. These findings suggest that consumption of sharks fin soup and cartilage pills may pose significant health risk for degenerative brain diseases.
In general, fish that are larger, have longer lifespan or are predatory are also more likely to accumulate higher levels of methylmercury than other species. It was mentioned in a 2013 discussion by the United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization, that fish like shark, swordfish, marlin, and some species of tuna “may have a considerably higher intake of methylmercury”. As our oceans become increasingly polluted, many countries have also provided consumer advice and recommended intake for these species.
How has your interaction with the relevant authorities been so far?
I’d say there are times when it is not easy to get clear, concise answers to questions that require specific details. I have raised my concerns to the authorities about the BMAA study two years ago, but I do not know if Singapore has conducted BMAA tests on local fin samples, and if local fin samples are free of this neurotoxin.
Over the years I have also enquired about how Singapore conducts mercury checks on shark products, and am told that we “have a comprehensive food safety programme in place to monitor and identify food safety hazards”. It would be great if our authorities could share statistics from their studies, such as mercury and BMAA levels in the local shark products that they tested. There’s a need for better transparency.
On numerous occasions, Singapore has also voted against the protection of endangered wildlife at the CITES Conference of Parties. At the conference last year, Singapore has voted against protection of all shark and ray species, and also rejected proposals to protect other species such polar bears.
The recent CITES conference in March 2013 also listed 5 more threatened shark species. All member nations, including Singapore, must enforce the new regulations by September this year. It would be great if our authorities can provide better understanding about how enforcement of the new CITES regulations will be carried out at our customs.
Given the rise of the number of animal groups in Singapore in recent years, our authorities seem more participative in animal welfare issues than before, and are even taking part in annual forums to discuss concerns from the public and take in feedback from the ground. With these open discussions, I am positive that Singapore is on a progressive road for conservation and animal welfare.
Crazy, lost cause, idealistic – did you ever get these terms thrown your way and what has been your reaction?
Idealistic, yes. “Come on, this is a culture that has been there for decades. What can you do about it?”
I have been told not to waste my time, I have also been said to be sailing on a rubber dinghy. Not many believe that a person, as an individual, can change anything. But I do.
All these comments actually don’t bother me much. I detach myself from these and I don’t allow them a chance to distract.
What was your greatest set-back, and greatest achievement?
As with all humans, I have had setbacks in life. Time slips away everytime we mull over our misfortunes. Whatever happens in life, life goes on, and time waits for nobody. There’s a take-home for every mistake we make in life. What’s important is to move on in gratitude for the lessons learnt, knowing that the same mistakes will not happen again.
How do we compare achievements in life and how do we determine which is greater than the other? I may have done things that are major achievements, but really, to the world, I am just another statistic.
If you had your wish, what would you like the average Singaporean to do to help you?
My wish is for every citizen of our globe will play their parts in helping animals and the environment, and for people to take deeper interest towards conservation. Humans have done so much irreversible harm to the environment that we rely on to survive. How can we secure the future of our future generations if we still remain nonchalant towards minimizing the damage we are doing to our one and only home?
Everyone has the capability to make a difference. Conservation is not a particular person’s job. It’s not solely a particular NGO’s duty nor solely, a government’s responsibility. Everyone has to play an active role to conserve. Volunteer your time at events. Pick up trash when you see them on beaches. Think “sustainable” in every aspect of your life. Even the simple act of sharing news articles about conservation on Facebook could bring awareness to friends who may be unaware about the state of things.
It must be tough running a one-person show. Ever thought of letting someone else or some other group take over the mantle? Or are you getting support from others?
I won’t say it’s tough, but it is particularly challenging to do the thousands of things I want to do on limited resources, especially time. I find myself constantly strapped for time, juggling between managing my time for animals and running a business. The seemingly simple task of even keeping two active Facebook pages running is actually not that simple at all. Starting a page is a breeze, but consistent maintenance is a different story. It actually takes a lot of hard work. Despite this, the journey has been most rewarding. Working on a cause you root for brings great meaning and purpose to life, and every passing day is a lesson learnt.
When my workload tips me over, I would simply take a short break from the cause and get back on it again soon enough. I have worked with a bunch of wonderful teammates and very supportive volunteers who dedicated time and efforts for the cause. In working with animal lovers, I am very blessed to have met some of the nicest people I have ever met in my life.