Focus: How Britain's biggest fund managers invest your money in China's trade in rare animals

Evening Standard Finance 2 weeks ago

Some of London’s biggest investors are accused of supporting the illegal wildlife trade by funding suppliers of traditional Chinese medicines (TCMs) which still make use of endangered species despite efforts to end the practice. 

Household name fund managers including Aberdeen Standard Investments, Invesco, BlackRock, Vanguard and Norwegian and Canadian state pension funds are among companies invested in suppliers which have been found to be using leopard bone in their products. 

The findings come despite China being signed up to international conventions banning the trafficking of endangered wildlife and the killing of wild leopards. 

Campaigners found one of China’s largest providers of TCMs, Beijing Tongrentang Pharmaceutical Co Ltd, advertises “medicinal wine” and pills for rheumatism that list leopard bone among their ingredients. 

BlackRock Fund Advisors, Aberdeen International Fund Managers Ltd and Norges Bank Investment Management, are among the shareholders of Tongrentang’s Hong Kong-listed subsidiary, Beijing Tongrentang Chinese Medicine Co Ltd. 

“You can see on the medicine’s packaging there is a green Chinese government-issued sticker saying leopard bone,” says Aron White, a campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency. “The Chinese characters don’t distinguish between type so it’s not just leopard but potentially rare snow leopard or clouded leopard as well.”

Tongrentang is valued on the stock market at 37.5 billion yuan (£4.12 billion) and it has outlets worldwide, including in Shaftesbury Avenue. It was previously discovered to be selling an arthritis treatment in Australia  which contained traces of snow leopard. Leopards are among Asia’s most endangered animals and have been wiped out from 85% of their former range. 

The killing of leopards for their bone was banned in China in 2006, with companies told they could only use existing stocks. But campaigners think hunting continues due to the large volume of bone still in circulation. 

China’s State Forestry and Grasslands Administration (SFA) has issued hundreds of permits for medicine companies to trade in protected wildlife. Just one such permit discovered by journalists in 2018 allowed the supplier, known to trade in clouded leopards, to issue 1.2 tonnes of leopard bone.

Another TCM firm found to be selling products containing leopard bone, Tianjin Zhongxin Pharmaceutical Co Ltd, is on the Singapore stock exchange.

Its Chinese website advertises “activity pills” that contain leopard bone, while its Chinese trading companies have been given nine SFA permits over the past two years, most recently in July. Bloomberg data shows investors include Invesco, BlackRock, Vanguard and the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board. TCMs have been touted by analysts at JPMorgan, UBS and others as an asset class for investors seeking exposure to China to target. A PwC report has noted that among the challenges were the “potential exhaustion of herbal or animal resources”.

Most of the fund managers’ exposure to these companies is due to them aiming to track the Hang Seng or Singapore indices rather than directly targeting the individual firms.Previously, Aberdeen’s China A Shares Equity Fund, which benchmarks the China MSCI A Index, contained Tongrentang’s Chinese parent before it dropped out of the fund. 

“These might be passive investments, but you can still do something about it,” one investment banking source said. “When some tracker funds were linked to American firms making cluster bombs they divested themselves pretty quickly.”

With most firms operating sustainability policies that prevent unethical investing, any exposure to TCM companies could prove problematic.

BlackRock, which declined to comment, commits in its mission statement “to using our resources responsibly to support the long-term sustainability of our firm and of the global environment”, while Norges Bank is bound by a Norwegian parliament order banning investments in companies which violate “fundamental ethical norms”.

Aberdeen said: “We regularly engage with companies on issues, such as product quality and supply-chain management. We are speaking with Tongrentang on this serious issue.”

Vanguard said, “These holdings are in index funds, which are obligated to track their benchmark. The benchmarks are developed and maintained by independent, third-party companies. Vanguard’s investment stewardship team regularly engages with the companies it invests in on corporate governance matters.”

 The TCM companies and the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board did not respond to requests for comment.

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