Conservation news

Delay in Hong Kong’s ivory ban endangers elephants and is ‘legally unnecessary’

African elephants in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

In December 2016, China and Hong Kong, two of the world’s major ivory markets, announced their commitment to shut down all domestic ivory trade. China implemented a full ban at the end of 2017, making it illegal to sell or process ivory in the country. Hong Kong announced it would completely phase out the domestic ivory trade by 2021, giving traders a five-year grace period to sell off their remaining ivory.

This mismatch in the implementation of the bans could be shifting the trade to Hong Kong, a team of conservationists say in a new letter published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

“The worry here is that the continued legal market in Hong Kong serves as an opportunity for ivory traders to launder illegal ivory derived from recently killed elephants,” lead author Luke Gibson, an associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, told Mongabay.

A Kenyan ranger guards poached elephant tusks in preparation for the destruction of 105 tons of ivory and a ton of rhino horn in April. Image by Mwangi Kirubi via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, is a global hub for both the legal and illegal wildlife trade. It is also a party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which banned the international trade in elephant ivory in 1989. This means that only ivory that comes from elephants killed before 1989 can be legally sold in Hong Kong. However, recent radiocarbon dating studies of large ivory seizures as well as government-led operations have found that some ivory traders have been selling ivory derived from elephants killed after the 1989 ban.

Gibson and his colleagues found that between 1996 and 2017, seizures of major shipments of more than 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of ivory were sometimes intercepted in Hong Kong, and other times in mainland China. The authors aren’t sure why seizures in the two countries seem to be negatively correlated, but they are concerned that with China banning its ivory trade at the end of 2017, the trade will now largely shift to Hong Kong. This would continue to encourage the poaching of African elephants. In the past couple of months, for instance, nearly 90 elephants were reportedly killed by poachers in northern Botswana.

“Ivory traders everywhere will always do whatever they can to evade detection by law enforcement,” said co-author Alex Hofford, a wildlife campaigner with WildAid Hong Kong. “It’s like playing a game of whack-a-mole. If it closes down over here, up it pops over there.

“We encourage the Hong Kong government to look into finding new and innovative ways to further restrict domestic Hong Kong ivory trade ahead of the full ban on 31 December 2021 — which is over three long years away,” he said. “Judging by the recent news of the 87 elephants massacre[d] in Botswana, a lot of elephants can still be slaughtered in that time.”

Mary Rice, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), who was not part of the paper, said large consignments of seized ivory were historically destined for markets in mainland China. While there is concern that the closure of China’s ivory markets, combined with increased enforcement there, could shift the trade to Hong Kong’s markets, it is also driving ivory to growing markets like Vietnam and Laos. These markets “cater predominantly for Chinese consumers who can no longer legally purchase ivory at home,” Rice said.

“Cambodia also now features regularly in seizure incidents,” she added. “Weak governance and enforcement in these countries facilitates the emergence of markets to fill the void created by China’s decision to ban ivory trade.”

An African Elephant. Photo by Rhett Butler.

Gibson and his colleagues, while applauding the Hong Kong government’s decision to phase out the ivory trade, urged a complete ban with immediate effect.

To possess and sell elephant ivory in Hong Kong, traders must have a license issued by the government. All currently held licenses will expire on Dec. 30, 2021.

To implement the ivory ban immediately, the government would have to cancel these licenses, Gibson said. While this is possible to do, Gibson said it was unlikely to happen because ivory traders had a strong political presence in Hong Kong.

Delaying the full ban to 2021 is “legally unnecessary,” said Amanda S. Whitfort, an associate law professor at the University of Hong Kong, whose husband, David Dudgeon, is a co-author of the recent letter.

“The right to private property under Articles 6 and 105 of the Hong Kong Basic Law is not absolute,” Whitfort said. “The government is permitted to take reasonable and rational action to restrict citizens’ free use of their property, including its sale, where restrictions are justified in the public interest. In this case, the government can make an extremely strong claim that the continued sale of ivory in Hong Kong compromises the legitimate societal interest in ending a trade that cannot be ethically or sustainably sourced.”

Whitfort said that since traders had not been asked to surrender their ivory to the government, “they may continue to keep it, exhibit it or even donate it. They simply may not sell it.”

“Those who have stockpiled pre-CITES ivory have had notice of the closure of the global ivory market for more than two decades, there is no legitimate need to allow them any more time,” she said. “Only after a total ban on the sale of all ivory has been implemented can Hong Kong begin to address the decades of harm our market has caused.”

Banner image of African elephants by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.