A typical web of conflicting political and business interests: Why Hong Kong needs a total ivory ban


Ilaria Maria Sala, Opinion/Hong Kong Free Press

Date Published

See link for photos & video.

In March this year, China started to ban its domestic ivory trade, by closing down its ivory factories and by the end of 2017 all retail outlets will be shut down, too. Stockpiles have been destroyed, and border controls have become stricter, to counter the illegal importation of ivory. The challenge ahead, of course, will be fighting smuggling – a practice that will require to Hong Kong to develop a zero-tolerance attitude towards all things ivory-related.

For China, though, it is a startling change. The country is more often in the news for its cavalier attitude towards endangered species than for its thoroughness in enforcing conservation laws. Its fetishism towards ivory would not have allowed for much optimism.

And yet… What with celebrities endorsing good and politically neutral causes – in the elephants’ case, it was the very constant involvement of basketball megastar Yao Ming that became a turning point – and one-upmanship with former president Barack Obama, China has moved to the forefront of the fight to save elephants from extinction. What’s more, is that it has been doing so in a relatively short amount of time.

Why can’t Hong Kong do the same?

Exploring the complex web of ivory imports, artistic or not so artistic ivory carving, ivory selling and reselling, and feet-dragging ivory legislation uncovers a rather familiar mix of conflicts of interests and divided loyalties that once again describe some of Hong Kong’s worse aspects.

As with much of the most reckless Chinese-medicine related endangered species consumption, to criticise ivory’s unsustainable and cruel use was – for a long time – seen as a foreign attack on timeless Chinese tradition. As if the spell of ivory had only seduced the children of the Yellow Emperor, and no European piano keys or statuette had ever been made using this material.

China, indeed, has prized ivory for millennia: so much so, that these beautiful animals, that used to roam China’s vastness too, have gone extinct in the country for many centuries (I would recommend Mark Elvin’s very erudite work on this, called The Retreat of the Elephants, published by Yale University Press).

Hong Kong has become an “ivory hub” in more recent times, but, through its role as a free sea port and as an easy place for all kinds of illicit import-export, it has become the greatest world center for both legal trading of elephant’s tusks and their by-products, and for smuggling.

The long work of education and sensitisation carried out by numerous NGOs, and China’s example, have finally made the local government more attentive to the issue, and an ivory bill is on the table for discussion – the second hearing is set for Wednesday, September 6. The aim, if its detractors don’t win the day, is to ban the sale of all raw and worked ivory by 2021, and to make it illegal to sell all ivory obtained before 1990 (which is when a first global ivory ban was put in place).

For a species as endangered as the African elephant, 2021 seems like many lifetimes away – if we think that Tanzania, for example, lost 60 per cent of its elephants just between 2009 and 2014. But who are those opposed to this bill?

The 419 licensed traders that exist in Hong Kong are keen to point out that not all ivory is the result of poaching – although undercover investigations have shown that, more often than not, legal and illegal ivory get mixed up.

Sellers encourage buyers by dispensing “tips” on how to cross the border with the forbidden objects, and only costly and time-consuming radiocarbon testing can determine the true age of elephants tusk byproducts. Which is why conservationists advocate a total ban on all trade as the only safe way to protect elephants from extinction.

Part of the pushback that will be heard in LegCo this week is about compensating the ivory traders, who – in spite of having since 1990 to change their line of business or exhaust their stockpile – might suffer economic damage, although this is arguable.

This, as many are pointing out, would be akin to compensating drug smugglers every time their wares are confiscated. Plus, it would only increase poaching and smuggling from now until 2021, as there would be a clear economic incentive to meet the deadline with as much ivory as possible.

A case in point, the record-breaking seizure of ivory – the largest in 30 years – just this July, when Hong Kong Customs seized 7.2 tonnes of illegal elephant tusks, hidden under fish cargo en route from Malaysia.

But back to Hong Kong’s conflict of interests situation. Two of those who oppose a total ban on ivory, and who are also favourable to seeing traders compensated if their stockpile is confiscated and burned, are also Honorary Consuls of two African states affected by the deadly business of ivory poaching and smuggling: Ethiopia and Tanzania.

Dennis Ng, head of Polaris Jewellery Manufacturer Limited, a company that was long involved in ivory dealing, is also the Honorary Consul of Ethiopia, the easternmost African country which has become a major transit point for smuggled ivory on its way to Hong Kong and China. It has been very staunch in combating wildlife crime and fighting trafficking.

But Ng, in spite of his role as representative of the country, has also been one of the most vocal advocates of keeping the trade alive and of compensating the ivory traders.

He has said that ivory carving is a Chinese tradition that would disappear, and has enviable connections both in Hong Kong and in China. His bio sees him as a member of the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference, as a member of the Guangzhou Panyu District Committee, and also as vice-President of the Gems and Jewelry Association of China and the Hong Kong Jewelry Manufacturers’ Association (HKJMA).

Clement Chan, Tanzania’s Honorary Consul General also had a jewellery shop – the now-closed Jewelery Kingdom – where undercover investigators obtained photos of ivory on sale. Tanzania itself has been bloodied by ivory poaching – it is also where elephant campaigner and NGO worker Wayne Lotter was just murdered last month.

It is this unhealthy web of business interests, diplomatic roles and political roles that makes the upcoming legislative consultation one which should just decree a total ban, with no compensation, at the earliest possible moment. Anything else would be failing the elephants, and the planet.