Press and Media

July 16, 2015
Save The Elephants

Press Release

Linked Nairobi-Hong Kong Press Conference 16th July 2015
Hong Kong, 3pm HKT, WWF Central Office
Nairobi, 11am EAT, Serena Hotel

Hong Kong’s ivory trade is creating a significant loophole in international efforts to end the killing of elephants in Africa, according to a new survey published today by Save the Elephants. Ivory prices have more than doubled in four years, partly driven by record numbers of mainland Chinese coming to the territory. Hong Kong now has more pieces of ivory on sale than anywhere else in the world.

Exporting ivory bought in Hong Kong into mainland China is illegal, yet vendors reported that 90 per cent of their customers were mainland Chinese. With ivory half the price than that found on the other side of the border, it is one of the ‘luxury’ items that the shoppers are seeking. In the early 1980s, when Hong Kong’s ivory market was last booming, the main buyers were Americans, followed by Europeans and Japanese.

Ivory trade experts Esmond & Chryssee Martin and Lucy Vigne surveyed Hong Kong’s retail outlets in late 2014 – early 2015 and found 30,856 pieces of ivory for sale. Prices for smaller items such as pendants had increased by six times since 2010-11, with bigger jewellery like bangles more than doubling.

“No other city surveyed has so many pieces of ivory on sale as Hong Kong. With higher taxes on the mainland, Hong Kong has become a cheaper place to buy ivory. With 40 million people crossing the border between the territories every year and controls lax, there’s little chance of their getting caught,” said report co-author Esmond Martin.

Hong Kong is also the world’s biggest ivory smuggling hub after Kenya and Tanzania, with over 8 tonnes seized by customs officials in 2013.

“Africa’s elephants are in crisis, with 100,000 killed for their ivory in just three years between 2010 and 2012. Unless the ivory trade in Hong Kong is closed down the territory will continue to represent a major threat to survival of the species,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Founder of Save the Elephants.

Hong Kong has not officially imported any ivory since 1990, and all outflows from this stock are recorded. From 1990 to 2000 all private ivory stocks recorded with the government nearly halved from 474 tonnes to 261 tonnes as traders sold their items. By 2008 these stocks had fallen to 232 tonnes. But since 2010 government figures show a decrease in ivory stocks of only a tonne a year despite the number of visitors from mainland China – most of whom are seeking luxury goods – having more than doubled.

“The numbers of elephants continue to decline at an alarming rate in Africa, and so Hong Kong urgently needs a firm plan and timeline to phase out the  sale of ivory. In addition, adequate resources are needed for inspection and enforcement efforts,” said Cheryl Lo, Senior Wildlife Crime Officer of WWF-Hong Kong.

"A mass slaughtering of African elephants is underway, yet the Hong Kong government is turning a blind eye. For 25 years since the international ban, Hong Kong's ivory traders appear to have been laundering poached ivory from illegally-killed elephants into their stocks and flogging it out as new. It is clear the only way to fix the problem is for the government to legislate for a commercial ivory sales ban.”said Alex Hofford of WildAid.

Officials of Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) claim the small reduction in quantity of registered ivory stocks in recent years may be because the local demand in ivory is small.

In January 2015 AFCD had eight full-time inspectors focused on inspecting local shops for elephant ivory. The most recent inspection by AFCD in 2014 did not show any illegal trade, yet the authors survey in 2015 revealed that many outlets selling ivory items do not display the compulsory license and if they do, they are sometimes out of date.

Routine spot-checks are not conducted on the average traveller at the Hong Kong airport nor the Lo Wu foot border crossing. Much ivory is smuggled in Chinese mainlanders’ luggage that is rarely discovered by the Hong Kong authorities due to the huge quantities of suitcases, shortage of government inspectors and emphasis on checking for other illegal goods. On the other side of the border, Chinese customs face similar challenges.

AFCD state that by law illegal ivory transactions can attract a maximum fine of HKD 5 million (USD 641,000), but that they typically see penalties of around HKD 20,000 (USD 2,564) to HKD 60,000 (USD 7,692) and/or three to six months in prison, depending on the severity of the crime. From 2011 to 2013 42 people were convicted for smuggling ivory, with eight months being the highest sentence.

The report also charts the increasing market for mammoth ivory in Hong Kong. Elephant ivory items can be passed off as mammoth ivory items in retail outlets and at customs, especially the smallest items that are difficult to tell apart, making law enforcement a considerable challenge for trinkets.

In May of this year the Chinese government pledged to end the ivory trade within its borders. Without strong action, Hong Kong’s ivory trade will continue to undermine international efforts and be a loophole through which Africa’s elephants are disappearing.

A PDF of the full report is available here.

Full-resolution photographs from the study are available on request.



Esmond Martin, Ivory Researcher:
+254 712 504 191 

Lucy Vigne, Ivory Researcher:
+254 722 411 037

Frank Pope, Save the Elephants:
+254 725 777 552

Ms Connie Tam, World Wildlife Fund for Nature:
+852 2161 9634 / 9212 6325


About Save the Elephants

Save the Elephants (STE) works to secure a future for elephants in a rapidly changing world. To battle the current surge in ivory poaching, the STE/WCN Elephant Crisis Fund is identifying and supporting the most effective global partners to stop poaching, thwart traffickers and end demand for ivory. Leaders in elephant science, STE also provides cutting-edge scientific insights into elephant behavior, intelligence, and long-distance movement and applies them to the long-term challenges of elephant conservation.