She’s been protecting animals from pangolins to parrots for years — and she calls Hong Kong home

Somewhere in my childhood psyche it was ingrained that animals shouldn’t be held captive. I preferred to see them in the wild. I was always looking for snakes, to my mum’s horror.

Astrid Andersson on campus at the University of Hong Kong in Pok Fu Lam. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
I remember being shocked and concerned to see shark’s fin on the menu in a restaurant and seeing elephant or mammoths’ tusk in shop windows on Hollywood Road.

Skyscrapers for sheep

I went to Kellett School, then West Island School, which at the time was very new. I completed high school at Rendcomb College, a boarding school in Gloucestershire, in the UK, trading in the skyscrapers for sheep.

At school, science wasn’t taught in terms of how it related to nature and I wasn’t that interested in science as a kid. I believed I couldn’t do wildlife or conservation as a career. I was also interested in international development, so that’s what I studied at Leeds University.

When I graduated, in 2008, it was the peak of the financial crisis and my freshly graduated friends were struggling and moving in with their parents. I moved to Phuket as I had connections there.

I had a housemate, so I couldn’t go back to my apartment, so we quarantined together at his place. And then I basically didn’t leave

Astrid Andersson on meeting her future husband during the pandemic

Initially, I worked as an English teacher and then found a job at the Phuket Gazette, a biweekly newspaper for expats. The thing that also appealed to me was that I’d be surrounded by nature and wildlife. There was a lot of drama on the island.

I wrote stories about Muay Thai fighters getting into brawls, motorcycle accidents, expats getting burgled and tourists being robbed. And I got to do some stories about leatherback turtles stranded on the beach.

Loss and gain

In 2011, I moved back to Hong Kong. I focused my journalism on environmental issues and started volunteering for NGOs that were doing campaign work on environmental issues.

Andersson has been active in advocacy, participating in protests and lobbying for meaningful change in laws pertaining to traded animal species. Photo: Alex Hofford
Around that time, my dad got sick with pancreatic cancer and it progressed quickly. He told me that if I was enjoying the work I was doing on a voluntary basis for the NGOs, I should go for it.

When he passed away, in 2014, I inherited some money which gave me the opportunity to focus on my passion. Without that it wouldn’t have been as easy.

Tusk force

In 2015, there was momentum building over sales of ivory. Stores were only allowed to sell antique ivory, but (campaign group) WildAid Hong Kong had noticed that over the last 10 to 15 years the stockpiles they had were not decreasing.

Hong Kong a sanctuary for cockatoos on brink of extinction

I worked with WildAid Hong Kong and helped get the permits for protests and to get people energised behind this cause – that you are not allowed to sell any ivory that has been poached in recent years.

I got the opportunity to speak at the Legislative Council about it. It was a successful campaign and an ivory ban was put in place that year.

Cockatoo calling

Around that time, I started hearing about pangolins. They are the most heavily trafficked mammal on the planet and are traded for their scales, which are used in traditional medicine mostly, and the meat as a luxury food.
Seized pangolin scales at Kwai Chung Custom House Cargo Examination Compound in Lai Chi Kok in 2019. Photo: Winson Wong

There were huge seizures of pangolin scales in Hong Kong. I wondered if Hong Kong was the end destination or just a transit point. With the Humane Society International, I organised a survey looking into Hongkongers’ attitudes towards pangolins and released a press release with the results.

A professor at Hong Kong University saw it and asked if I’d like to do a PhD on pangolins. Pangolins are widespread throughout Hong Kong and the city has functioned as a protective safe haven.

Initially, the idea was to do a PhD on the pangolin population that we have in Hong Kong, which is free roaming in the country parks. But then I thought it would be easier to study the yellow-crested cockatoos that have also been affected by the wildlife trade, which was the thing I was really interested in.

Yellow-crested cockatoos are critically endangered. Photo: Sam Tsang

They are in the centre of Hong Kong, they are noisy, they are awake in the daytime – they would be much easier to research than pangolins, which are way up in the hills, nocturnal and solitary.

Captive market

My PhD focused on the population of yellow-crested cockatoos that arrived in Hong Kong when they were heavily traded as caged birds in the 1980s and early 90s.

I was able to publish a few chapters of my PhD in scientific journals. One of them involved surveys in the bird market, where I went for almost two years, to check how many yellow-crested cockatoos were for sale.

My theory was that they were being taken from nest holes and sold in the market. We could see there were more on sale here than were imported from farms abroad, so their origins were dubious.

Andersson extracts cockatoo DNA while heavily pregnant. Photo: Astrid Andersson

We were able to highlight that there was no real regulation in Hong Kong for home breeding and that there really should be, because then we would be able to reliably trace back to where these cockatoos come from.

Did they come from a legitimate breeder or were they taken from a nest hole in the wild in Hong Kong and sold under the guise of legality in the market? Laundering, essentially.

I also developed a scientific tool that allows you to take a feather and check whether the cockatoo has been eating a diet that is similar to that of a captive bird or a wild one.

Love in the time of Covid

I met my husband, Rishi, early on in the pandemic and things progressed quickly, as they did for many couples who got together during Covid. We met on Bumble.
We went on holiday to Vietnam in March 2020. When we returned, hotel quarantine hadn’t yet been introduced, but we were expected to quarantine at home. I had a housemate, so I couldn’t go back to my apartment, so we quarantined together at his place.

And then I basically didn’t leave. He had a much nicer apartment than me.

What breed is my dog? There’s a pet DNA test for that. Is it worth it?

Rishi works at Google in cybersecurity. We got married during the pandemic. We now have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter called Agnes. She is showing a keen interest in wildlife, which I’m happy about, and she’s especially obsessed with butterflies and cats.

Flying the coop

I’ve been studying the yellow-crested cockatoo for seven years now. I’ve noticed individual birds that weren’t there before. They might be a different species. Either they escaped through their own ingenuity or perhaps someone released them because they were tired of having the pet.

A yellow-crested cockatoo on sale in Yuen Po Street Bird and Flower Market, Hong Kong. Photo: Astrid Andersson

These birds can be monogamous in the wild and pair up for long periods. That can translate in captivity into them only liking one person in the household and really disliking the others.

If you live in a small apartment with a pet that is messy and sometimes aggressive it can be challenging for some people and they release them.

Parrot people

I’m now doing a post-doc focused on the genetics of cockatoos. During my PhD, I was able to sample 40 individuals. Now I’m analysing those samples to see if the Hong Kong population has the same genetic signature as those in Indonesia. If so, what islands are they likely to have come from?

I met a lot of parrot people during my PhD. They are usually obsessed with parrots only. I’m not like that. I don’t want to get pigeonholed – or cockatoo-holed. I selected cockatoos because they are a good model species that demonstrate the issues that I think apply to a lot of wildlife that gets exploited for trade.

Andersson presenting the application of forensic tools in monitoring the wildlife trade at the United for Wildlife Summit in Singapore in November 2023. Photo: Astrid Andersson

They can live for up to 70 years, sometimes longer, and are concentrated in the urban areas of Hong Kong, such as Admiralty and Wan Chai.

It should be celebrated that something can survive alongside humans in such a dense urban environment. It provides this wonderful engagement for people that live in a city to see this beautiful parrot outside which can help encourage empathy for conservation efforts or nature.

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