Editor's Note: Peter Knights is Director of WildAid, an international conservation organization focused on ending the demand for illegal and unsustainable wildlife products. He has researched the trade in shark fin for 10 years and has worked on conservation programs in 45 countries.
Peter Knights, right, examines shark fins in the Galapagos last year.
SAN FRANCISCO, California (CNN) -- At certain times in history, great nations find themselves shaping the future of the world. For many of our most endangered wildlife species, China finds itself in that role today.
Old customs of consuming certain wildlife as foods, medicines and decoration and new economic success have blended to create a recipe for extinction for a number of wild animals unless the growing appetites can be curbed.
Rare animal consumption in China was formerly limited to a tiny affluent minority, but incredible economic growth of 10 percent a year has led to a booming number of new consumers. After the SARS outbreak, authorities reported seizing 980,000 live animals from wildlife markets. China is now the primary market for tiger bone, rhino horn, elephant ivory, live snakes, pangolins and a whole host of wildlife products.
Perhaps the greatest example of this boom is its role in the largest mass slaughter of any large animals going on today. Every year the fins from up to 70 million sharks are being used to make shark fin soup -- the vast majority going to China and Hong Kong.
Though the cartilage from the fins has no real flavor and is basically just protein, this soup retains a cachet that can fetch more than $100 per bowl. It is bought for business dinners, banquets and weddings as an indication of high spending to "honor" guests, but it is leading to environmental vandalism on a massive scale worldwide.
Fishing for fins has spread to the most remote parts of the planet as easily accessible shark populations have already plummeted, some by up to 95 percent in the last fifteen years.
Although most shark fishing is completely unrestricted, in the few areas they are protected they are still being heavily poached. In the Galapagos Marine Reserve, up to 10,000 fins (2,500 sharks) have been seized in a single shipment and endangered sea lions and dolphins are used as bait.
In 2006, Australian authorities seized 365 Indonesian boats fishing illegally in their waters mostly for shark fins. Only threatening to fire upon boats if they didn't heave to and burning the offending boats eventually stemmed this tide. But as I recently discovered, the shark finners just moved on to Papua New Guinea, where there are no controls.
Reporter Lisa Ling and the "Planet in Peril" team filmed as we hauled up illegal longlines inside the Cocos Island Marine National Park in Costa Rica and as we chased off the same boats two days in a row. I have traveled around the world to witness the inability of even developed nations to protect their waters from illegal fishing.
Drug trafficking has shown that even draconian laws and billions spent on law enforcement cannot stem the tide if the demand in consuming countries remains high. For wildlife and especially fisheries, regulation is weak and enforcement is invariably poor.
That is why WildAid focuses on trying to end the demand -- the only long-term solution. WildAid believes that "when the buying stops, the killing can, too." The organization has broadcast this message to up to 1 billion people a week with the help of more than 100 celebrity ambassadors from the worlds of movies, music and sport.
The encouraging news is that when people in China know what's going on, they do care. Our initial research revealed that 75 percent of Chinese didn't even know "fish wing" soup, as it is called there, was derived from sharks. They didn't know that sharks mature late and reproduce slowly and that nearly one third of shark species are considered endangered or vulnerable.
So we embarked on one of the largest conservation awareness initiatives, reaching hundreds of millions of Chinese.
China's most popular star, Yao Ming, championed the program pledging to never again eat shark fin soup, generating 300 news stories. We covered Beijing with his image, appealing for the sharks, and a host of Chinese and international Olympians recorded messages that Chinese state television and video billboards broadcast widely.
A top survey company in Beijing, CTR, found that 55 percent of those surveyed remembered our campaign, 94 percent of those became aware of the issue, 89 percent subsequently thought the soup should be banned or regulated and 82 percent said they would stop or reduce their consumption. We got similar results from previous work in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand.
For the health of our oceans, we must hope that China can show global leadership in banning or strictly regulating shark fin soup and continue to educate the public, saving our sharks and other endangered species. We hope that this great culture that has lasted for thousands of years can conserve, rather than destroy, these animals that have survived for nearly 400 million years and yet face annihilation in our lifetimes, all for a bowl of overpriced soup.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peter Knights.