Hong Kong to resume hamster imports a year after mass cull

Hong Kong will resume hamster imports later this month, officials said Thursday, nearly a year after some 2,000 pet rodents were culled at the height of the city's coronavirus outbreak.

The Chinese finance hub halted the commercial import of the small mammals last January after a pet store worker and nearly a dozen hamsters tested positive for the Delta variant.

As part of the city's strict zero-Covid policy, authorities also ordered hamster owners to surrender their pets for culling, sparking an outcry from animal activists and many residents.

Hamsters can once again be imported for sale in Hong Kong starting this month, but only if they test negative for the coronavirus, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department told AFP on Thursday.

Hong Kong's campaign against hamsters took place in the early days of an Omicron outbreak that ultimately killed around 9,000 people and signalled the collapse of the city's Covid defences.

That outbreak left Hong Kong with one of the highest per capita fatality rates in the world last year, fuelled mostly by elderly people who had declined to get vaccinated.

The government defended its hardline measures, in part citing scientific research that showed Syrian hamsters could get infected with Covid-19 and pass it on to humans.

Critics saw the cull as an illustration of the kind of strict rules that hammered the city's economy, sparked an exodus of residents and left it internationally isolated for more than two years.

The import ban, which initially applied to all small mammals, was narrowed to only hamsters in May.

The city began relaxing its pandemic curbs in September, with mainland China following suit by the end of the year, though in Hong Kong some control measures such as compulsory indoor and outdoor masking remain.