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Hong Kong Ivory Traders Get Off Lightly

The ivory trade is predicted to send elephants extinct within 12 years.  WildAid statistics reveal 33,000 elephants are killed annually for their ivory and that less than 400,000 exist in the wild.  The maths is brutally clear!

A significant step was taken this week to prevent this tragic outcome.  On 31st January 2018, 49 out of 53 legislators voted in favour of banning the ivory trade in Hong Kong by 2021.


This certainly didn’t happen by accident.  It took years of dedicated action by ordinary people and organisations seeking change.   Hong Kong has ‘one of the largest domestic ivory markets,’ meaning the repercussions of their efforts will have overwhelmingly positive implications for the survival of this species.


The Hong Kong 2021 ivory ban was originally announced in 2016 by Leung Chun-ying but there was a backlash by liberal politicians supporting the ivory retail industry and the financial loss they would face.  Liberal Party’s Shiu Ka-fai was one of the four people who voted against the ban. 


According to South China Morning Post he feels “this ban has disregarded the interests of the industry.”  He believes the 370 licensed wholesalers and 100 craftsmen who own 77 tonnes of ivory should be compensated and receive training.


To put this into context, an average African elephant tusk weighs 23kg this equates to 3,347.83 tusks or 1,673 dead elephants.  With elephant families consisting of between 2 and 50 individuals this means Hong Kong can shamefully claim to have stockpiled between 33 - 836 African elephant families in their bloody coffers.


It seems unlikely that the tradesmen will be offered compensation or training for several reasons.  Firstly, they will have received a 5 year warning period of the ban.  However, many environmental groups feel this to be too long.  Although the IUCN Red List only classifies African elephants as vulnerable, the enormous annual poaching statistics make wildlife activists feel a quicker turnaround would be wiser.


Secondly, some might consider that these ivory retailers have got off lightly.  Not only have they made a lot of money at the elephants’ expense but some of them have done it illegally.  WildAid discovered that “traders were using paperwork of the legal trade to launder freshly poached ivory into the system.” 


This is not the first time by any stretch that evidence has been found of such illegal antics.  Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s documentary, ‘Saving Africa’s Elephants: Huw and the Ivory War,’ (2016) revealed how Hong Kong ivory shops professed the same merchandise was either legal European or illegal African ivory depending on the customer.


Unfortunately, ivory legislation is very complicated and varies between countries.  The age of the ivory is often the defining factor in whether it is legal or illegal.  Criminals have therefore perfected ivory aging techniques.  As there are no visual tests to corroborate ivory’s age, this means legally imported antique ivory has provided cover for present day poaching.


Such legal complexity has created confusion at all levels.  Lady Victoria Borwick, a UK Conservative MP and President of the British Antique Dealers Association, argued at a House of Commons ivory debate that “far eastern buyers purchasing contemporary Buddhas” have no comparison to “the purchaser of carved ivory medieval Christian diptych.”  


Her assumption that antique buyers bear no responsibility for modern day poaching is at the very least naïve.  All ivory has been poached whatever its age. One might appreciate the cultural significance of such antiques but many feel such items should be in museums and not perpetuating personal profit.  Ivory may be white on the outside, but there is no denying it has left a trail of blood.


The latest vote in Hong Kong is accompanied with sanctions to match this new responsible approach to global wildlife.  Future maximum prison terms will increase from 2 to 10 years and fines could be as high as $1.3 million.  A significant deterrent for middlemen such as high street stockists and traders.


This legislation will be implemented in 3 phases starting with a ban on the trade in elephant hunting trophies and carved ivory. Then a ban on pre-1975 ivory, when CITES regulated international trade.  Finally, a complete ban of ivory obtained prior to 1990, in line with the international ban on commercial ivory trade. 


Whilst congratulating Hong Kong an eye must be kept on the unintended consequences of such actions.  The poachers will inevitably seek to exploit different outlets for their product. WildAid states that “Japan is now the largest open market for ivory with a nominal system of regulation.”  A report for the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) and The Illicit Trade in Ivory highlights similar concerns. 


This report was commissioned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species for their latest meeting (CoP17).  It classified Japan as an important country to watch.  Not only do they “have a major ivory market” but they also have a “longstanding indigenous carving industry.”  Combine this with their nominal ivory regulation and this makes Japan a country to watch for the new ivory trade.

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