Time for a Hong Kong tusk force to combat illegal ivory trade

Anna Beech says Hong Kong, as a key port in the illegal global trade of ivory, must step up its enforcement action against the criminals behind it

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 September, 2013, 3:29am

China is the largest consumer of ivory and its demand is bringing the African and Asian elephants to the point of extinction. According to the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, all wild elephants will be wiped out in the next five to 10 years if poaching and habitat loss continue at the present rate.

Hong Kong has a vital role in all this. A report to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) says that Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Hong Kong accounted for 60 per cent of large-scale seizures since 2009, totalling 41.1 tonnes. As both a demand city and also one of the largest transit points where elephant parts are redirected elsewhere, usually mainland China, Hong Kong is at the forefront of this battle to halt the ivory trade.

What can be done to save the elephant? CITES was developed to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Yet despite a consensus about the threatened status of elephants, CITES has failed to prevent their wholesale slaughter or dampened the motivation for their trade.

Hong Kong has the requisite system in place to intercept illegally traded wildlife and, by law, the Customs and Excise Department is obliged to check that elephants and elephant parts are not illegally traded and handled through its ports. However, many would argue the scale of the operation to enforce these requirements is too small.

The nature of the ivory trade adds to the complexity in enforcement. Much like the illegal trade in narcotics, counterfeits and human trafficking, the global ivory trade is controlled by organised crime syndicates, often using similar trade routes. From the initial poaching of the elephant, transport by air or sea, to handling by dealers and sale in the destination country, the process is highly organised and requires a degree of complicity from corrupt park officials, the police and customs officers.

This makes catching illegal traders and prosecuting offenders extremely difficult, and fudged permit declarations hard to trace. Despite the interception of a number of big ivory shipments in recent years, enforcement in Hong Kong needs to be scaled up to more adequately address the problem.

Better surveillance and use of technology are crucial, and the establishment of the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime should help key transit ports like Hong Kong co-operate and share intelligence with authorities from other demand, transit and source countries.

We need an equally heavy focus on the demand side. Environmental non-governmental organisations and campaign groups in Hong Kong and mainland China need to focus on communicating the realities and consequences of the ivory trade to consumers.

WildAid, a US-based NGO, has been running TV and social media campaigns in China to stem the trade in different species, including a prominent shark fin campaign with celebrities such as actor Jackie Chan. Ivory and shark fin consumption have similar connotations of prestige in Chinese society, and campaigns that help to demystify such purchases can make a big difference in driving down demand.

Anna Beech is senior project manager at Civic Exchange