Elephants Win: Hong Kong Moves to Crush Ivory Trade

The government reveals plans to end the city’s legal ivory market, which activists say fuels the slaughter of elephants.
A custom officer with seized ivory tusks being displayed to the press in Hong Kong. (Photo: Laurent Fievet/AFP/Getty Images)
Jan 13, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying announced Wednesday that his government will end its legal ivory trade.

That market is considered a facilitator of illegal ivory transport into mainland China, the world’s largest consumer of smuggled ivory.

“The government is very concerned about the illegal poaching of elephants in Africa,” Leung told Hong Kong’s legislative council on Wednesday. “It will kick-start legislative procedures as soon as possible to ban the import and export of elephant hunting trophies.” He added that the government will “explore other appropriate measures,” including a phaseout of the local ivory trade and stiffer penalties for smuggling and trading endangered species.

Wildlife conservation groups are hailing the announcement as a milestone in the movement to ban all ivory trade—a position the Chinese and U.S. presidents took in 2015.

“We expect action will be taken this year, but what we don’t know is what the timeline will look like,” said WildAid chief executive Peter Knights. “He announced a phaseout, so obviously the quicker the better. The most important thing is that they reveal a timeline this year.”

RELATED: World’s Biggest Ivory Market Throws Elephants a Bone

WildAid has been working in China and Hong Kong since 2011 to educate the public on how the country’s legal ivory trade fuels illegal poaching of Africa’s elephants.

“We’re losing 30,000 elephants a year in Africa, and we believe most of that ivory is being traded through legal channels,” Knights said.

In a report released last year, World Wildlife Fund Hong Kong showed the loopholes in the legal ivory trade that allow illegal tusks to infiltrate the market. Ivory from the city’s stockpile obtained prior to 1990 can be legally sold. But lax enforcement has allowed the 400 or so licensed traders to use legal ivory permits as a front to sell contraband tusks.

The practice has helped lead to the rapid decline of African elephants, whose population has fallen from between 3 million and 5 million in the early 1900s to around 470,000 today. If poaching keeps its current pace, scientists say the species could be extinct within two decades.

Hong Kong’s move comes as the price of elephant ivory plummets. In a report by conservation group Save the Elephants, the cost of raw ivory on the black market has fallen by almost half over the past 18 months. Ivory tripled in value in the four years leading up to 2014 but dropped from a high of $2,100 per kilogram to $1,100 per kilogram by November 2015.

Researchers Lucy Vigne and Esmond Martin of Save the Elephants said the price drop is a result of China’s growing public awareness about illegal ivory and the government’s intent to shut down the domestic ivory trade.

“Everybody in the ivory business in China is waiting and wondering what will happen next, and are gloomy that their centuries-long tradition of ivory carving may be coming to an end, hoping at least that it can be phased out gradually,” Vigne and Martin said in a statement.

“If the trade closes, the value of ivory as an investment depreciates,” Knights said. “We see Hong Kong prices going down because of the public backlash against ivory, and that should have an impact on poaching. Couple that with stepped-up efforts in Africa to deter poachers, and the ivory trade ends up getting squeezed at both ends.”