A major market for elephant ivory, Hong Kong will shutdown sales of the “white gold” by the end of 2021.
Lawmakers in Hong Kong voted to ban all ivory sales in the territory on Wednesday, a move environmentalists hailed as a definitive measure to help curb elephant poaching.
Lawmakers have a green signal on January 31 to a four-year plan that would phase out the city-state’s legal retail market, which conservationists and advocates say helps increase the slaughter of more than 30,000 African elephants annually by serving as a cover for ivory traded on the black market.
The measure gained momentum by a vote of 49-4, comes more than two years after Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying promised to shut down the ivory trade, and more than a year after the government submitted a plan for ending sales.
The plan also includes harsher penalties for smugglers, which somehow states that under the new law the maximum prison sentence will increase from two years to 10, and the fine will double to $1.3 million.
“Today is a great day for elephants,” Alex Hofford, the Hong Kong campaigner for the group WildAid, said in a statement. “Hong Kong has always been the ‘heart of darkness’ of the ivory trade.”
Hong Kong, an autonomous special administrative region of China, has long abided has long abided by the terms of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, which banned the international trade of ivory in 1990. Hunting trophies and antique ivory are excluded from the terms of the convention, unless countries impose their own harsher laws
Environmentalists have long warned, however, that countries that allow trade in “pre-convention” ivory effectively aid poaching, as illegal ivory is often passed off as antique. And as markets closed around the world, places like Hong Kong have become major hubs for products that are illicit elsewhere.
It is noted that more than 90 percent of people who buy ivory in Hong Kong are from mainland China.
Some activists have questioned why Hong Kong allowed such a long grace period for ivory traders to phase out their businesses.
“Every positive step to us concerning elephants is good news,” says Philip Muruthi, vice president of species protection for the Nairobi-based African Wildlife Foundation. “But the urgency of the issue as it pertains to elephants hasn’t been taken seriously here.”
Globally, elephants are being killed at unsustainable rates for their tusks, which are carved into everything from artwork to chopsticks and sold—illegally—across borders, although countries are free to allow domestic sales. Only an estimated 350,000 African elephants remain, a drop from about 490,000 a decade ago—with poaching the main culprit for the ongoing decline. Environmentalists estimate more than 33,000 elephants are killed every year to help feed the demand for ivory, which is seen as a status symbol in some Asian countries.
Mainland China, which shut down its legal ivory trade last year, is the world’s largest consumer of ivory.
Laurel Neme reported for Wildlife Watch in June 2016: “Tens of thousands of ivory items are displayed for sale in high-rent tourist areas [in Hong Kong] while seizures of huge quantities of ivory by customs authorities confirm its place as an ivory smuggling hub.
After the international trade in ivory was banned in 1989, the city-state instituted a license system for existing legally acquired commercial ivory stocks held by private traders, which at the time totaled 665 metric tons. Studies suggest that amount should’ve been exhausted by 2004, but today roughly 370 licensed ivory traders collectively hold about 77 tons of ivory.”
Ivory shop owners and licensed traders won’t be compensated under the shutdown plan, sources reported that they demanded tens of millions of dollars in return for giving up their ivory stockpiles. The three-year grace period, as well as the fact that traders generally rely on ivory for only a small portion of their business, were given as reasons for refusing to pay them.
A three-year period for closing the ivory market means that enforcement is important, says Richard Thomas, spokesman for TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring organization. “With the later implementation of the Hong Kong ban, those with ivory in mainland China might perceive a potential back door for unloading their stock,” he says. “It will be critical to closely monitor and document ivory stockpiles and secure borders to ensure this door remains firmly shut.”
“This is a huge tribute to the leadership of lawmakers and a fantastic effort by civil society groups to push for action on this issue,” Erik Solheim, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said in a statement. “We now need to see all other countries close loopholes that still allow the illegal trade of ivory to continue.”
Image Source: EPA-EFE/JEROME FAVRE