Hong Kong has launched a landmark bill to ban its domestic ivory trade, amid accusations that authorities were lagging behind China in phasing out the market.
Hong Kong is home to the world’s biggest retail ivory market, with more items for sale than anywhere else in the world. The majority of buyers are mainland Chinese, who smuggle the worked ivory across the border. Hong Kong is also perpetuating the illegal market: more than a third of licensed ivory dealers have been found to advise buyers on ways to smuggle ivory out of the city, according to a recent report by Traffic.
The bill would ban the import and export of worked and raw ivory by 2021, including banning the possession and sale of all ivory obtained before 1990.
The move follows the ban of mainland China’s domestic ivory trade, seen by many as a critical step in the global battle against poaching. Asian demand for ivory is widely believed to be behind the sharp rise in elephant poaching over the last decade. Ivory factories in mainland China were officially shut down by 31 March 2017, and the rest of the retail outlets will close by the end of the year.
The official launch of the bill to the legislative council comes after demonstrations in the city calling for an end to the trade. On 6 June this year, lawmakers consulted the public about the government’s ivory ban proposal. During this consultation process wildlife ranger Erik Mararv, manager of the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, highlighted to legislators the human cost of ivory.
“The truth is that people are being killed … people are seeing their families being destroyed because of the trade,” he told Radio Television of Hong Kong (RTHK). “Five years will be at least 500 rangers killed on the frontline. Are we happy to sacrifice 500 rangers for people to be able to sell off a few tonnes of ivory?” he said.
Hong Kong announced it would follow China’s move to close the domestic trade in late 2016 through a three step plan. The government has now started the legislative process to bring it to fruition.
Park ranger Erik Mararv (centre) delivered an emotive testimony against the ivory trade to Hong Kong’s legislative council. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty
“Now the ball is in the legislators’ court, we call on lawmakers to close the domestic ivory market as soon as possible” said WWF Hong Kong’s senior wildlife crime officer, Cheryl Lo.
“The trade is well-known for its illegality, including smuggling elephant tusks from Africa, laundering with the legal ivory license as a front and trafficking into mainland China. The government must act swiftly to end this situation and increase penalty on wildlife crime to a 10-year imprisonment,” she added.
The new amendment to the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants was presented to Hong Kong lawmakers on 14 June, which was described as a conscious effort to “eradicate” illicit poaching of elephants across Africa and Asia.
Environment minister Wong Kam-sing said in a statement the city must respond to the demands of the international community, and the ivory trade would “fully come to a close” by December 2021. The 2021 deadline – which is five years behind Beijing’s announcement – has also been a source of contention in these discussions, with warnings that Hong Kong’s open market may fuel China’s illegal trade.
“The fact that the two bans are out of sync in terms of when they take effect could produce unexpected consequences that could serve to undermine the efficacy of China’s trade ban that commences in seven months’ time,” said Dr Yannick Kuehl, Traffic’s regional director for East/South Asia.
But the government said it would not compensate the ivory carvers and sellers for any lost trade, because it was “determined” to close down the market.
There are 386 legally registered ivory traders and 72 shops in Hong Kong with licenses to sell ivory obtained before the 1990 international ban. If the bill comes through, they would have five years from the announcement of the policy to dispose of the ivory in their possession and shut down their businesses.
This piece is part of a year-long series on Elephant Conservation – email us at firstname.lastname@example.org