Is US-China deal enough pressure to push away Hong Kong's illegal ivory trade?

Beijing and Washington vow to implement near total ban on imports and exports in one of most significant steps so far to shut down the industry

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 September, 2015, 11:37pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 September, 2015, 5:19pm

A joint pledge by Beijing and Washington to take significant steps to end their domestic ivory trades has increased pressure on Hong Kong to halt its own sales of elephant tusks, the World Wide Fund for Nature Hong Kong says.

Leaders of the two countries - the largest markets for illegal ivory - vowed to enact a near-complete ban on imports and exports, the White House said on Friday during President Xi Jinping's state visit.

Green groups say the move is one of the most significant steps to date in efforts to shut down an industry that has fuelled the illegal hunting of elephants.

The ban will cover "significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies" as well as unspecified "significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade".

"With 30,000 elephants killed in Africa every year, the China-US announcement is timely and encouraging," WWF-Hong Kong's conservation director, Gavin Edwards, said.

"As our city plays a significant ongoing role in the global ivory trade, the pressure is now on the Hong Kong government to follow suit and halt the local ivory trade."

However, Edwards said a timeline for the Sino-US deal was vital.

"Both governments must now define an aggressive timeline for their actions."

WildAid chief executive Peter Knights said the pledge was one of the greatest single steps that could be taken to reduce poaching for elephants.

Knights called on Hong Kong to join mainland China and the US in banning the ivory trade.

According to WildAid, the announcement marks Xi's first public commitment to end ivory sales in China.

Hong Kong is a major trading hub for illegal ivory products; the city ranks fifth in the world in terms of the quantity of ivory contraband confiscated, ivory researchers Esmond Martin & Lucy Vigne say in a 2015 report.

It is also the city with the world's largest retail market for ivory, with 400 licensed businesses offering more than 30,000 pieces on sale, the report says.

The news out of the White House follows a WWF-Hong Kong report this month linking the city directly to ongoing poaching in Africa.

That report, titled The Hard Truth, is largely based on video dialogues with three ivory traders in the city.

Watch: Undercover activists' infiltrate and speak to ivory traders

A global ivory ban came into force in Hong Kong in 1990, but domestic trade continues with licensed dealers allowed to use and sell their existing private stocks obtained before the ban.

The private stocks are separate from the government's 29.6-tonne stockpile of seized illegal ivory, which is being destroyed in a process that started in May last year.

In the video, undercover activists get the three retailers to admit they know how to manipulate the system.

One trader reveals a buyer in Hong Kong could make a "purchase order" for ivory directly smuggled from Africa.

"Most of it goes to mainland China through two routes; some is smuggled into China. We don't care, as long as the transactions are conducted in Hong Kong," one of the trio says. "Sometimes, [mainland clients] buy the ivory, then 'escape' to Zhuhai through Macau. So simple."

Another trader states: "After I sell an ivory item, I can use illegal ivory to top up my stock again. The government officials have no idea how to govern."

The report also revealed re-exporting ivory from Hong Kong without a permit - which is illegal - was rampant.

"This investigation confirmed what we long suspected, that there's an ongoing trade in illegal ivory here," Edwards said.

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said it was investigating claims made in the video.