With Hong Kong’s help, an end to the ivory trade is in sight

Cheryl Lo and Gavin Edwards say Hong Kong’s decision to phase out the local ivory trade is a major step to saving the world’s wild elephants

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 February, 2016, 1:19pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 February, 2016, 1:19pm

Elephants are struggling to survive in an uphill war against poaching. The largest animal on land is disappearing at an alarming rate. But 2016 started off with a glimmer of hope, as Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying promised during his policy address to “actively explore other appropriate measures, such as…phase out the local ivory trade”.

READ MORE: The illegal ivory trade: Hong Kong moves centre stage in seeking to beat the business

Over the past year, the Hong Kong government has undergone a major shift: from denying Hong Kong’s ivory market was causing elephant deaths, to admitting the ivory trade’s regulatory system is flawed, before becoming “open-minded” about an ivory ban, to announcing plans to ban ivory.

This is truly a milestone for the world’s elephants. It has only been achievable with cross-sector unity. First, conservation groups exposed how the regulatory system in Hong Kong was being exploited to smuggle illegal ivory directly from Africa. Second, public sentiment is strongly behind a ban. Third, political groups united to pass a motion in the Legislative Council calling for the government to explore further restrictions, so as to ultimately achieve a total ban on the domestic trade.

China is now moving quickly, with signs that the trade could end as soon as 2017

International momentum is growing, with Pope Francis, Britain’s Prince William and the UN General Assembly all speaking up against the illegal ivory trade. Remarkably, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) reached a consensus to halt their domestic ivory trade. China is now moving quickly, with signs that the trade could end as soon as 2017.

The disappearance of such majestic animals has devastating consequences for the fragile ecosystem

It is becoming harder to deny that it is totally impractical to govern a legal ivory trade. Evidence of system failures can be found in Hong Kong, the US, China and even Japan, which was renowned for having the best practices in controlling its ivory trade.

The disappearance of such majestic animals has devastating consequences for the fragile ecosystem that relies on elephants, for example, to spread the seeds of trees, to engineer the landscape for grazing animals and to attract tourists for local communities.

Hong Kong’s decision to phase out the ivory trade is in line with world progression, and will strike a major blow against the global illegal wildlife trade. It is no longer a question of if a ban is needed; we can focus on “when” and “how”.

The next step is to rapidly implement this decision and develop a concrete timeline to phase out the trade. The ivory trade has been prolonged for 25 years since the global trade ban, and Hong Kong may risk a swelling black market as China squeezes out its domestic trade. With close to 100 elephants being poached every day, there is no time to waste.

Cheryl Lo is senior wildlife crime officer, and Gavin Edwards is conservation director, at WWF – Hong Kong