- Exporting ivory bought in Hong Kong to mainland China would involve crossing an international border, which is illegal and in violation of CITES regulations.
- But 27 of the 74 traders that TRAFFIC surveyed encouraged buyers to take ivory out of Hong Kong without obtaining CITES permits.
- While some shopkeepers suggested hiding small ivory trinkets in bags and luggage, others offered more detailed strategies to conceal purchased ivory.
Several licensed ivory dealers in Hong Kong are offering strategies for buyers to take ivory out of the city illegally, according to a new report by wildlife trade and monitoring group TRAFFIC.
Members of TRAFFIC teams, posing as tourists, surveyed 131 legal ivory dealers in Hong Kong in August and December 2015. Most of these shops — which included antique galleries, gift and souvenir shops, and jewellery and specialty stores — are concentrated in areas that tend to attract tourists and antique buyers.
The team found that of the 74 (or 56 percent) licensed shops selling ivory, only 23 shops (or 31 percent) had their licenses displayed during the surveys. This is in violation of Hong Kong regulations, according to which all licensed ivory dealers must display their license in a conspicuous position on their premises.
Moreover, when the team asked the shopkeepers if the ivory on display could be taken to mainland China, more than one-third of the traders (27 of the 74 traders) encouraged the buyers to smuggle ivory out of Hong Kong without obtaining the necessary permits. Exporting ivory bought in Hong Kong to mainland China would involve crossing an international border, which is illegal and in violation of CITES regulations. (CITES is short for Convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora, under which, international trade in elephant ivory is banned.)
Some shopkeepers told the teams, for example, that small ivory trinkets for personal use could be easily hidden in bags and luggage. Others suggested more detailed strategies to conceal purchased ivory, such as offering to deliver the ivory products to Shenzhen in mainland China for a fee of HKD 10,000 (~$1,285).
“Insufficient compliance by the city’s licensed traders highlights major shortcomings with Hong Kong’s current regulation of the local ivory trade,” Wilson Lau, a Programme Officer with TRAFFIC and a co-author of the report, said in a statement. “Clearly, the regulatory framework together with law enforcement efforts are proving insufficient deterrents, judging by how many ivory traders openly violate the rules.”
Hong Kong is one of the world’s major ivory trade hubs. Following the CITES ban on global ivory trade, Hong Kong prohibited the import and export of ivory, but allowed domestic trade in pre-1990 (or pre-ban) ivory to continue. However, advocacy groups have suggested that many traders use loopholes within Hong Kong’s laws to re-stock their “legal” ivory stockpiles with illegal ivory from recently poached elephants.
In March this year, for example, a Hong Court convicted two men for illegally possessing and selling elephant ivory at their licensed outlet. Forensic analysis showed that the ivory in their market had been acquired after 1990. The men, however, received minimal fines of HKD 6,000 ($770) and HKD 8,000 ($1000) respectively, according to TRAFFIC.
“Heavier penalties, which would raise the deterrence against would-be offenders and discourage criminal syndicates from using the city as a favoured smuggling channel, is urgently needed,” Cheryl Lo, Senior Wildlife Crime Officer, WWF Hong Kong, said in the statement. “The proposal to increase maximum penalties to 10 years’ imprisonment is significant and reasonable, and should be supported by legislators together with the local ivory trade ban.
In December 2016, Hong Kong announced its three-step plan to phase out domestic ivory trade by the end of 2021. This includes banning the possession and sale of all ivory obtained before 1990. However, for the ban to be effective, monitoring and law enforcement activities need to be stepped up, the report says.
“Experience teaches us that bans with commensurate investment and dedication to their effective implementation would deliver the best outcome,” said Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC’s Elephant and Rhino Program Leader.