Yes to Elephants

Hong Kong says no to its domestic ivory trade


By Amanda Mei

[dropcap]Y[/dropcap]ou can find ivory in the shops and markets of Hong King — both legal and illegal. Legal ivory comes from before 1989, which is when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned the international ivory trade. Illegal ivory comes from the hundreds of thousands of elephants poachers have killed since then.

For decades, the trade of legal ivory in Hong Kong has concealed the shipments of illegal ivory into the city. But now the city plans to ban its domestic trade.

Although the domestic trade refers only to ivory traded within city borders, the ivory trade doesn’t begin in Hong Kong. In Africa, 33,000 African elephants are illegally poached each year for their tusks, according to WildAid. These tusks, raw material for ivory, are shipped across international borders despite CITES’ ban and reach consumers in Asia and beyond. As a major port and commercial hub, Hong Kong contributes significantly to Africa’s poaching problem. The African elephant is almost extinct.

But in his Jan. 2016 Policy Address, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying promised to stop some of its illegal ivory trade — by banning the domestic ivory trade. The government intends to ban local sales of ivory and the import and export of pre-1989 ivory through its gates. Smugglers, dealers, or buyers of post-1989 ivory will face even harsher penalties.

Leung’s bold announcement comes after a Dec. 2015 motion by politician Elizabeth Quat to ban the domestic ivory trade. By making that move to the Hong Kong’s legislature, Quat wanted to align the city’s laws with the growing international movement to save endangered species such as the African elephant. Legislators unanimously passed the motion.

Hong Kong’s laws have not always supported elephants. A report by World Wide Fund for Nature Hong Kong in Sept. 2015 found that dealers of legal ivory dabbled in the illegal trade. Since CITES banned the international trade, Hong Kong has given 413 licenses to ivory dealers. But the dealers need to renew their licenses every five years. In order not to deplete their legal ivory stocks, they turn to illegal ivory. The domestic ivory stockpile was 665 tons in 1989 but has stabilized around 110 tons for the past two years, according to WWF Hong Kong. Officials report an average of 13 metric tons legal ivory traded per year in Hong Kong, but the number has remained around one metric ton for in recent years. These inconsistencies cannot be explained by changes in ivory demand or the amount of ivory on sale because neither number has declined. The discrepancy can only be explained by the arrival of illegal ivory poached from African elephants into Hong Kong’s markets.

Hong Kong has so far struggled to regulate its domestic ivory trade. Inspectors — only eight in the city — rarely use forensic testing and other methods to date tusks and have trouble differentiating between legal and illegal ivory. Even when they catch people with illegal ivory, courts almost never give out more than small fines or short prison sentences as penalties. Criminals have become so adept at sidestepping regulations that one of them, videotaped by WWF Hong Kong, offered to order ivory directly from Africa for customers.

But despite shady past dealings with ivory, Hong Kong is now moving away from regulation and toward a total ban on the ivory trade — in an effort to save African elephants. In May 2014, Hong Kong started destroying its stockpiles of illegal ivory, obtained from smugglers and dealers by government officials. In 2015, Hong Kong’s three biggest ivory retailers ceased their sales of the material. In Sept. 2015, the United States and China jointly pledged to ban domestic ivory trade within their borders. Now, according to a University of Hong Kong survey, 75 percent of Hong Kong’s residents support a ban of the domestic ivory trade.

Environmental organizations such as WWF Hong Kong praise the city’s decision to ban the domestic ivory trade and would like to see more plans for implementation. Legislative measures taken to improve implementation might include comprehensive stock checks of legal ivory, random inspections of licensed dealers, and the usage of tamper-proof holograms and photographic records to track ivory. But although Leung voiced his legislature’s intention to stop the ivory trade, he did not set an exact date for the ban.

Other groups, such as ivory carvers and merchants, accuse the Hong Kong government of driving their businesses — not elephants — into extinction, and they ask for compensation.

But leaders such as Leung and Quat will not compromise. They have laid down the law regarding Hong Kong’s ivory trade. In the future, in markets and shops around the city, you might not be able to find any ivory — legal or illegal.


Amanda Mei is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Contact her at