That comes as the United Nations on Sunday called for the shutdown of all legal domestic ivory markets as it looks to combat poaching and put pressure on countries that continue to trade in elephant tusks.
Member states of the UN’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, agreed on a resolution that calls for legislative, regulatory and enforcement measures to be taken to close legal domestic ivory markets around the world.
“Today saw a historic moment toward tackling the illegal ivory trade that is killing 20,000 to 30,000 African elephants each year,” Heather Sohl, WWF-UK chief adviser on species, told the meeting in Johannesburg.
Legal ivory markets, such as those in China and Japan, are often accused of fueling elephant poaching because illegal ivory is sometimes sold through them. Elephant numbers have continued to fall as poaching surges, with Africa’s elephant population falling about 20 percent between 2006 and 2015, the International Union for Conservation of Nature said in a report.
The CITES resolution is not legally binding. “It becomes an issue of political will and puts pressure on countries to take action on the domestic ivory market. It is significant that they have made this statement,” said Sue Lieberman, Wildlife Conservation Society vice president of international policy and head of delegation.
What surprised many of those who drew up the resolution was the position taken by China, one of the biggest markets for illegal ivory. “China wanted a very clear message that all domestic, legal markets should be closed,” said Patrick Omondi, of the Kenyan delegation at CITES.
WWF Hong Kong conservation director Gavin Edwards called it a “significant and very welcome step” as it will exert peer pressure on governments reluctant to close their ivory markets. “For the world’s ivory markets the question is no longer ‘if’ they should be closed: the question is now ‘when’ they will be closed,” he said.
China is expected to announce the closure of its ivory market later this year and Edwards said some speculate the timeline is within two years, which will put “real pressure” on the Hong Kong government.
However, if the mainland market closes but Hong Kong remains open, Edwards said this may encourage traders to use the SAR as a front for illegal ivory.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying vowed in the 2016 policy address to phase out local ivory trade, and the government then revealed a five-year plan to do so.
The trade could be eliminated locally as early as within two years, a WWF Hong Kong study said. Edwards said the government is concerned traders will be “unhappy” if it pushes the ban so quickly. Some made it clear they will be discontented even if the market closes in 10-15 years, and he urged the government to take swift action.