Hong Kong must spare no effort to end trade in illegal ivory

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2015, 1:51am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2015, 1:51am

The incineration of an initial 1.2 tonnes of confiscated ivory last year was something of a media event. It put Hong Kong on the same page as the mainland, which had earlier crushed six tonnes of ornaments and elephant tusks worth up to US$12 million in front of assembled media and diplomats. It may have seemed symbolic, given that Hong Kong was left with a stockpile of 30-odd tonnes. But it heartened conservationists campaigning for the preservation of the African elephant from illegal poachers and local traders who flout a ban on international trade in ivory with seeming impunity.

Beijing's ban on the import of ivory products for one year to assess the effect on elephant protection may also have seemed symbolic. It did all seem too good to be true, given that ivory remains prized in China and other parts of Asia as a source of wisdom, a sign of nobility and a symbol of wealth.

And so it has proved, as a result of an undercover operation in Hong Kong by members of the World Wildlife Fund. WWF claims to have found that traders are dealing in illegal tusks by exploiting loopholes in the licensing system for legal transactions. Activists targeted three who claimed to know how to manipulate the system and say they will hand video evidence to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department.

It is good that the department has begun implementing stock checks of all licensed ivory-keeping premises and spot checks on traders and arts and crafts shops. It is also awaiting the result of tests overseas on carbon-dating technology that can better determine when an elephant died, which could help foil the mixing of recently poached tusks with legal ones. At HK$30 million plus substantial running costs, the equipment could be worth acquiring if test results would be admissible in court and it had other uses, such as biotechnology and medicine. The law must be made effective if Hong Kong is to shed its unsavoury reputation as a hub for routing and sourcing a shameful trade that has seen the African elephant population plunge from 1.3 million to 500,000 in 35 years.