A message from African rangers to Hong Kong: End the ivory trade, because our bodies are on the line


Gavin Edwards, Hong Kong Free Press

Date Published

See link for photos. 

Erik Mararv and his team have one of the riskiest and deadliest jobs in the world – protecting wildlife from gun-toting poachers who will stop at nothing to procure fresh elephant ivory for Asia’s lucrative market. Mararv is the manager of Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and last year took a bullet in his thigh by poachers. He survived, but his fellow rangers were not so lucky – three were killed by poachers armed with AK-47s and a belt-fed machine gun. That’s three families who no longer have a father or an income. In fact some 100 rangers are killed every year in similar incidents protecting wildlife. This is essentially an all-out war on wildlife, and it has to stop.

Africa’s elephant population has dwindled to just over 400,000 elephants, with more than 20,000 per year lost to poaching. For the Northern White Rhino the picture is far worse – they once roamed the forests and plains of Garamba National Park, but today only three remain, and are under heavily armed guard in the relatively safety  of a reserve in Kenya. Extinction for the Northern White Rhino is sadly inevitable.

The good news is that governments are moving to address the problem, by outright banning the ivory trade, closing their ivory markets, and increasing penalties and fines for smugglers and traffickers. President Xi Jinping has committed to close China’s market completely by the end of this year, and Hong Kong is proposing a 5 year phase out of its market. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council has called for a Public Hearing on the matter, and Mararv and a delegation from DRC, Zambia and Kenya will be in town to join WWF to testify to legislators, detailing their horrific wildlife poacher war stories and demanding an end to the trade as soon as possible.

Hong Kong’s remaining Ivory traders will of course demand that the market stays open, as they have around 77 tonnes of ivory still to sell, which they claim was legally sourced before 1989 when the ban on international trade in elephant ivory was put in place. Investigations back in 2015 by WWF revealed what we long suspected – traders keep legal stock piles of ivory as a front for their business, but then substitute it for freshly poached ivory smuggled into the city from Africa, thus prolonging their business. A recent investigation by the Agriculture, Fisheries & Conversation Department confirmed this – undercover officers bought a pair of chopsticks from a trader, sent them to a laboratory abroad for radio-carbon testing, and found that they were from an elephant post-1989 and were therefore illegal. Two traders were subsequently prosecuted.

AFCD’s actions are commendable, but this approach to enforcement is not without its challenges – radiocarbon testing is a costly method of verifying age. It is also a destructive test, as a large sample needs to be taken from the ivory to be properly processed by a laboratory. Add to that the monumental task of Customs and AFCD to try and catch these wily traders and smugglers, and the fact that the criminal kingpins and gangs behind this trade are never investigated or prosecuted, and you can see why Hong Kong and China have come to the conclusion that it is time to turn the page on this one facet of our cultural history by closing the market for ivory.

Globally, governments are also closing markets and importantly, they are not compensating traders for old stock. The rationale for this is that traders took a business risk by accumulating such stocks, and have had ample time to dispose of them. Hong Kong should also follow these international norms, which is also consistent with the Basic Law in Hong Kong. Government is well within its rights legally and also morally to close the trade.

Traders are of course demanding astronomical sums of taxpayers’ money as compensation for their old stock. This simply doesn’t wash. Let’s face it: they’ve had 27 years to sell their ‘old’ stock, and they continue to try and outwit government to prolong their lucrative trade by laundering new ivory. It’s not as if their very livelihoods are at risk. A recent AFCD study found that selling of ivory represents only a very small part of their trading business. After all, traders can’t on the one hand claim that they are barely selling any ivory every year, and on the other claim their livelihoods are in jeopardy. Contrast this with Mr Mararv and his brave ranger teams, whose very livelihoods – protecting wildlife – can easily cost them their own lives.

Legislators will hear testimony from all sides at the Legislative Council. On the one side the future of Africa’s wildlife and the rangers that protect them is in jeopardy. And on the other are poachers armed to the teeth, and traders who profit from their spoils. The choice for Legislators is clear: choose wildlife and the lives of Rangers.

Gavin Edwards is the Conservation Director at WWF Hong Kong.