A trade in misery

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 November, 2002, 12:00am

Hong Kong is desperate for recognition as an international city, but rather than achieving fame, it could be heading for infamy.

Authorities need to prove to the world that they are serious about stamping out Hong Kong's links to the illegal trade in ivory - unless we want to become known as the city that played a part in killing off the world's elephants.

Despite last month's high-profile seizure by customs of the largest haul in 10 years of illegal ivory, there are still serious doubts about Hong Kong's role in this nefarious trade.

Last week, the influential wildlife protection group, the Environmental Investigation Agency, submitted a report to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), claiming a Hong Kong group was behind the resurgence in worldwide illegal ivory trading. Hong Kong needs to respond to these allegations in more depth than to merely say they disagree.

The virtual global ban on the sale of elephant tusks, in force since 1989, is being increasingly ignored in Asia. A series of reports this year have revealed that China tops the list of offenders.

Africa is the main supplier of the demand being created by the mainland's rapidly growing wealth, although poachers are also endangering Asia's rapidly dwindling elephant population.

CITES, which is meeting in Chile, has heard that South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe want to overturn the ban. They want to be allowed to sell 87 tonnes of stockpiled ivory and are pushing for an annual quota allowing them to sell 13 tonnes of tusks annually.

They claim their thriving elephant populations would allow for the selective culling of animals to raise money for wildlife preservation. Environmentalists oppose the scheme, saying that even a limited trade in ivory will lead to an increase in smuggling.

The number of Asian elephants is not rising. Encroachment on their habitats and poaching is cutting populations from India through Thailand to Vietnam.

A recent CITES report said that officials in China were beginning to take tougher action against ivory traders. That was not evident, though, in markets in Guangzhou last week, as our Page 4 report shows.

It would be impossible to check every container that passes through the SAR. But customs officials should be made more aware of the seriousness of the problem.

Without increased effort, we could be marked as the people who helped exterminate the Earth's biggest land mammal.