Why Hong Kong’s ban on ivory trade is such a big deal
The decision taken by the Legislative Council on Wednesday is seen by green groups as the ‘breakthrough moment’ in the battle to save elephants from extinction
On Wednesday, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council voted – by 49 to four – to phase out the city’s domestic ivory trade, hammering one of the last nails in the coffin of a historic but controversial industry.
First proposed by then chief executive Leung Chun-ying in 2016, the three-stage phase-out will culminate in all commercial sales of elephant tusks being outlawed by 2021. The maximum penalty for the smuggling and illegal trading of endangered species was also increased to 10 years’ imprisonment from two years.
The move was welcomed by local and international conservationists, given the city’s reputation as a transit and smuggling hub for illegal wildlife products, but blasted by traders and craftsmen who saw it as a clampdown on a legal, tightly regulated industry steeped in traditional Chinese culture.
All licences to trade legal ivory stocks issued, extended, renewed or varied before the end of 2016 will expire by default by December 30, 2021. The government rejected calls from the trade – with the support of a small contingent of sympathetic lawmakers – to compensate merchants for their unsold stocks, arguing that it would send the wrong message.
The local ivory trade: a brief history
Owing to its geography and position as a free port, Hong Kong has been a trading hub for legal and illegal elephant ivory for the better part of a century. Fuelled by demand for intricately carved pieces from the West and later Japan, the then British colony’s retail ivory industry thrived in the mid-20th century.
There were between 6,000 and 8,000 carvers working in the colony in the 1960s and 1970s. They would procure tusks from factories and carve their own designs to sell. Popular products included spheres, mahjong tiles and chopsticks.
In 1975, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) was created under the auspices of the United Nations. The African elephant was listed under CITES Appendix II in 1977, which meant exporting countries needed to prove trade in its products would not be detrimental to the species’ survival.
As elephant populations continued to fall, the classification was upgraded to Appendix I in 1989, essentially banning the international trade of all elephant species. Ivory prices tanked.
An estimated 600 tonnes of pre-ban ivory remained in Hong Kong’s stockpile.
The government imposed a licensing scheme which allowed traders to continue selling post-convention ivory. As of 2017, there were about 64 tonnes held by licensees for commercial purposes.
Why is the Hong Kong government banning the domestic ivory trade? Why is it significant?
Wednesday’s decision was seen by green groups as another milestone for the conservation of elephants. “The news that Hong Kong will ban the sale of ivory is a breakthrough moment in the battle to save elephants from extinction,” said Erik Solheim, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme.
The international trade in illicit ivory is worth an estimated US$19 billion (HK$148.2 billion) – leading to the slaughter of 30,000 elephants each year, according to international reports. WWF, a conservation group, estimates that the population of African elephants may have declined by 111,000 over the past decade due largely to poaching.
With the chorus of environmental activism growing louder in recent years, the government of “Asia’s world city” has been keen to rid its reputation as the world’s foremost supplier of worked ivory products in the 1970s and 1980s. Mainland China has also banned its domestic ivory industry.
The economic and political costs were deemed low enough too. According to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, citing an ivory trade survey it commissioned in early 2016, the local trade was “inactive”. There had been no transactions for about 90 per cent of the surveyed stocks of post-convention ivory in the preceding five years.
But what role does Hong Kong play in the illegal poaching of elephants in Africa?
Finding direct links between poaching, smuggling and consumption is difficult, but it is widely believed that most sources come from East Africa and end up in the hands of mainland consumers. Ivory is perceived to be a luxury item on the mainland and the country accounts for 70 per cent of global demand – illegal or legal.
At least one route – Hong Kong to Macau and then on to neighbouring Zhuhai before the goods are distributed to other markets – has been identified by activist groups as a popular one used by smugglers.
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The wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic previously estimated that three tonnes of ivory was seized between 2000 and 2013 in mainland China, Singapore and other nations after passing through Hong Kong. The city ranks fifth in the world for ivory seizures since the 1989 ban.
Conservationists also believe the existence of the legal trade in Hong Kong fuels poaching and demand for ivory. It is alleged that licence holders can easily exploit loopholes in the system and launder stocks of illegal ivory.
Why does it take five years to ban the trade?
The international trade has been banned since 1989, but selling ivory imported before the ban remains legal and regulated by a licensing system.
Traders who own ivory for commercial purposes must register for a HK$160 “license to possess”, effective for five years. The period between 2016 and 2021 is five years.
While some activists have called for the ban to be implemented earlier or even immediately, officials argue that it is only fair that traders are given adequate time to get rid of their stocks. Also, under current laws, the director of agriculture, fisheries and conservation has no way of revoking these licences before expiry.
In any case, it has taken two years for the legislative exercise to be completed, leaving just three years before ivory products must be taken off shelves.
Who are the winners and losers?
There was almost no question about a pass in the legislature. Lawmakers from both sides of the political spectrum had helped lobby for a ban. But still, the final nod by legislators on Wednesday was celebrated by activists who had been campaigning rigorously for such a ban.
“With great support from the Hong Kong people, our five-year campaign has finally paid off,” said long-time wildlife campaigner Alex Hofford of WildAid.
“It started with the destruction of the seized ivory stockpile. Then we persuaded Hong Kong’s four large department stores to stop selling ivory. We exposed how traders were using paperwork of the legal trade to launder freshly poached ivory into the system. Finally, almost all Hong Kong lawmakers have been persuaded to support a bill that will secure great protection for African elephants.”
But for the 370 licensed wholesalers and 100 craftsmen who still hold ivory stocks, a ban without compensation has been described as somewhat akin to theft.
Veteran ivory dealer Daniel Chan Chun-bo described the arrangement as “illogical” and expressed doubt over how it would lead to a recovery in elephant populations. “This is a legal trade and we haven’t broken any laws. If you stop the sales, will it really stop the killing of elephants in Africa?” he told the Post in 2016.
The Liberal Party’s Peter Shiu Ka-fai, who represents the wholesale and retail sector and was one of the four “no” votes, on Wednesday, said: “This ban has disregarded the interests of the industry.”
Shiu expressed worries about the livelihood of the licensed wholesalers who hold 77 tonnes of legal ivory, as well as 100 craftsmen who were over 60 years old. He said the government should offer them compensation and training for a new career.
So what now between now and 2021?
With three years left till the blanket ban is complete and the mainland retail market closed, environmentalists have called on the government to step up enforcement in Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong and mainland China’s ivory markets have long been closely linked, but the disparity in policies between them could lead to the perception of Hong Kong as an open store in the midst of a curfew,” said Tom Milliken, leader of Traffic’s elephant and rhino programme.
“Close regulation and monitoring is essential to prevent any laundering of ivory to the still open markets in Hong Kong, which would seriously undermine efforts in mainland China to implement its ivory trade ban.”
WWF conservation director Gavin Edwards said the discrepancy could intensify Hong Kong’s position as a “preferred market for illegal ivory under the cover of remaining legal traders”. He said markets in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Japan and Myanmar were increasingly catering to Chinese visitors.
“This is the time to increase rather than to relax our efforts,” he said.
“With stronger sentences in Hong Kong, law enforcement should take a greater role in joint efforts to investigate and prosecute criminal wildlife syndicates.”