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Supping on conservation soup
Publication Date : 07-03-2013
A new exhibition at WTF Bangkok seeks to convince hotels, restaurants and the Thai public to militate against the consumption of shark fin
There can be few better places where art can be used as a tool to expose the truth behind shark fin soup than bistro-bar-gallery WTF on Bangkok's Sukhumvit Soi 51. Trek down a silent alley past derelict buildings and you will witness how sharks are hunted for a bowl of shark fin soup that's as weak in flavour as it is rich in cruelty.
WTF's first floor is a bistro decorated in contemporary garage style with funky and wild props and where you can enjoy Thai, Spanish and Portuguese tapas and finger food. But it's better not to eat before you head upstairs for the exhibition "100percent Shark" , as the images of man's inhumanity towards other living species is guaranteed to make you feel sick.
Continuing through March 22, the photographs, installation art and video works are part of the Fin Free Thailand campaign initiated by the Freeland and Love Wildlife foundations with support from local NGOs and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
"We have been campaigning against eating shark fin soup since 2001, raising awareness through shocking images like a human ear being sliced off and ending up in a bowl of soup. As part of the global campaign Fin Free, today we have adopted a more friendly and informative approach to persuade hotels and restaurants to remove shark fin soup from their menus and consumers to stop ordering and eating this soup," says Seamas McCaffrey, communication consultant of Freeland Foundation.
According to McCaffrey, shark fin restaurant owners in Bangkok's Chinatown alone claim to sell more than 20,000 bowls of shark fin soup every month.
Dominating the left wall on the second floor is a collection of 12 photos by Hong Kong-based photojournalist Paul Hilton, whose photo essay titled "Shark Fin" won the 2012 World Press Photo Award. In one picture, a shark is brutally hunted and its fins are sliced off while it is still alive. After the finning, the shark is thrown back into the ocean to bleed to death.
The next photo shows a pile of freshly sliced fins waiting to be cleansed and cut up by workers. Another equally horrible image is the view of thousands of shark fins left out to dry on the roof of an industrial building in Hong Kong's Kennedy Town district. Reports state that shark fin traders have taken to drying freshly sliced fins from sharks on rooftops following the public outcry in 2010 over the fins being dried on public sidewalks. The picture was taken in early January and it's believed that the fins were destined for the market in anticipation of the Chinese New Year in February.
Yet another picture portrays an enormous amount of shark fin laid out to dry in a plant in Taiwan. Adjacent is a shot taken in a market in China where large dried fins, possibly from whale and basking sharks, are for sale together with dorsal, pectoral and caudal fins to supply man's never ending appetite.
"Sharks are among the most threatened of marine species worldwide due to unsustainable overfishing. Sharks are primarily killed for their fins alone, which is an Asian delicacy. Finning while still alive is barbaric and cruel, and up to 97 per cent of the animals are then tossed away to die in the sea," states Hilton. "My aim is to show that we, as consumers, can truly make a difference through the daily choices we make. It is in our power to save this remarkable species."
On the opposite wall, in contrast to Hilton's stark images, are Jirayu Ekkul's underwater photographs of whale sharks swimming peacefully in the ocean.
"This is where the shark should be, not in a bowl of soup for a wealthy person. These photos were taken last year at Similan and Tao islands where it's still possible to find whale sharks. The global shark populations, particularly the bull, dusky and hammerheads, have declined by 99 per cent since the 1950s," says Jirayu, director of marine conservation at Love Wildlife Foundation
"Despite its massive size, the whale shark doesn't pose a significant danger to humans. On the contrary, it tries to escape us to live peacefully. Divers call it the big and kind giant of the ocean. It's a filter feeder who feeds mainly on plankton. As humans, we have a lot of eating choices so why are we still eating the shark fins that are brutally harvested each year," he adds.
For centuries, shark fin has been a coveted delicacy in Chinese cooking, extolled for its supposed ability to boost sexual potency, enhance skin quality and increase energy. A video that lasts for just three minutes and which is edited by Sipakorn Kungsapichart is likely to change these perceptions.
Through the motion graphic, we are informed that every two seconds, more than five sharks are brutally killed - that's 1.4 million every week and 73 million a year. Today, up to 50 species of sharks are in danger of being lost forever. Sharks also have the highest levels of concentrated mercury of any fish and that can cause serious health problems like neurological disorders and cognitive dysfunction.
Opposite the video, an artist collective called Anonymous has created a pop-up dining table covered with a full set of Chinese-style dinnerware complete with dragon motif. Titled "Dilemma Association", the table is set under the spotlight with the biggest bowl at the centre representing the expensive and controversial soup known as Buddha Jumps Over the Wall. Other pieces of the dinnerware symbolise dishes like braised duck and barbecued suckling pig.
"When we have a special occasion to celebrate, we tend to order a special meal with expensive dishes in the mistaken belief that these are good for our health. The Buddha jumps over the wall soup requires many ingredients like shark fin, sea cucumber, abalone, quail eggs, bird's nest and scallops. We don't realise that our celebration means the killing of other living species," says a Thai artist, a member of the collective. "These animals are the victims of man's celebration in a capitalism society."
The exhibition also coincides with CITES - the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora conference - which is taking place in Bangkok from today until March 14.
100percent Shark continues until March 22 at WTF Cafe & Gallery.