A slew of new measures by mainland authorities to crack down on the ivory trade have left Hong Kong officials looking like they are not pulling their weight.
In the past year, Beijing has implemented a number of major policies to stem the trade of “white gold”- developments that campaigners see as genuine attempts to tackle the problem.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong has yet to propose any serious policy changes, and a prominent legislator has urged local authorities to be more proactive on the issue.
Hong Kong has long played a key role in the world’s ivory trade.
The city serves as a transit point for illicit ivory headed to the mainland – considered the world’s largest consumer market – as well as a home to hundreds of licensed ivory sellers.
In February, the central government implemented an immediate one-year ban on the importation of carved ivory products in a move that drew headlines around the world.
The ban followed the implementation in April last year of mandatory jail terms for consuming or buying endangered species, as well as a US$10 million aid package to help East African nations combat wildlife crime.
“I believe China is sincere in its attempts to stop the trade. They recognise they have to do something and are trying to tackle the problem,” said Yannick Kuehl, regional director of Traffic, which monitors the international wildlife trade.
“China is getting a lot of international pressure. Hong Kong is not,” Kuehl said.
The issue has never been so urgent, with African elephants facing extinction within a decade if poaching continues unabated.
“In Hong Kong, the feeling is that everything is under control, so there is little momentum for change,” Kuehl said.
Asked what was being to done to crack down on the illegal ivory trade, a government spokesperson said: “Hong Kong has put in place a strict regulatory system to control the import, re-export and domestic sale of ivory.”
The spokesperson for the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department did not answer questions on whether the city had plans to push for more stringent sentencing guidelines for wildlife crimes.
According to Kuehl, lax punishments for wildlife crime make Hong Kong an attractive destination for smugglers. “Wildlife offences are considered a petty crime [by Hong Kong authorities]. The maximum sentence is only two years. In mainland China, you could get life,” he said.
According to an official list of prosecution cases between 2010 and 2013, the maximum sentence doled out for smuggling ivory was eight months in prison. Typically, a fine of between HK$30,000 and HK$80,000 was imposed.
Elizabeth Quat, a prominent legislator with the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of hong Kong, urged the local government to be more proactive on policy changes.
“At least the Hong Kong government should conduct a study on what they could do to further stop the illegal ivory trade” in the city, Quat said.
The lawmaker is currently lobbying the central government to implement a complete ivory ban on the mainland.
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