Delay on full ban of ivory trade in Hong Kong could encourage elephant poaching, study shows
While China stopped the sale of ivory last year, Hong Kong’s gradual approach will only see it outlawed in December 2021
The shutdown of mainland China’s domestic ivory market last year may be shifting more of the trade across the border to Hong Kong where a citywide ban is to come into effect in three years, according to a study.
The mismatch in timing of the two bans may be inadvertently widening the window for illegal trading and smuggling, fuelling the poaching of elephants in Africa, researchers suggested.
Beijing implemented a nationwide ban on the ivory trade last year but Hong Kong has opted to phase out the trade gradually, with a complete ban coming into effect only on December 31, 2021.
“Because China prohibited the ivory trade at the end of 2017, there are concerns that the trade will now shift to Hong Kong – and records show this is already happening,” the article, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, read.
Statistics compiled by the researchers showed that more than seven tonnes of elephant ivory were seized from major shipments within Hong Kong last year, the largest amount seized in a year, and none in the mainland since the ban. Less than a tonne was seized in 2016.
University of Hong Kong biologist Dr Luke Gibson, one of the report’s authors, conceded that one year’s worth of data may not confirm a long-term trend but there were was more than enough evidence to suggest an inverse correlation between seizures of elephant ivory in China and Hong Kong.
“Over the past two decades, when there was more ivory confiscated in China, there was less confiscated in Hong Kong … and vice versa,” he added. “The closure of China’s market might push the trade to Hong Kong.”
This was a high possibility given the existence of criminal syndicates moving ivory shipments between Hong Kong and China, the researchers said.
“Ivory traders everywhere will always do whatever they can to evade detection by law enforcement,” said co-author Alex Hofford of WildAid Hong Kong. “It’s like playing a game of whack-a-mole. If it closes down over here, up it pops over there. The Hong Kong authorities need to be ever vigilant to their tricks.”
Gibson’s worry was that the seizures would increase. With three years left until the full ban traders would be encouraged to fully exploit what they could before the window closed, fuelling illegal poaching of elephants in Africa.
While Hong Kong’s ivory trade is currently regulated by a licensing scheme, illegal ivory often makes its way into Hong Kong, gets mixed in with legal stocks to evade detection and then smuggled to China, the world’s biggest source of demand, according to activists.
According to studies, the population of savannah elephants goes down by about 8 per cent every year as a result of illegal poaching. Earlier this week, Elephants Without Borders found the carcasses of 87 poached elephants near a wildlife sanctuary in Botswana, the largest scale of poaching deaths ever seen in Africa.
“We encourage the Hong Kong government to look into finding new and innovative ways to further restrict the domestic Hong Kong ivory trade ahead of the full ban … which is over three long years away,” said Hofford.
“Judging by the recent news of the elephant massacre in Botswana, a lot of elephants can still be slaughtered in that time.”