Elephants are dying because of Hong Kong’s failure to tackle illegal ivory trade, report says


Danny Lee, South China Morning Post

Date Published

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Hong Kong’s law enforcement of illegal ivory smuggling is failing and hurting international efforts to end the killing of elephants in Africa, a new report by top conservation experts has concluded.

The Save the Elephants report said government agencies faced a “growing challenge” to tackle both large illegal ivory shipments from Africa bound via the city for mainland China, and ivory items bought in retail outlets by mainland tourists to smuggle home.

Resson Kantai Duff (left), Head of Awareness at Kenya-based NGO ‘Save the Elephants’, and Cheryl Lo (right), Senior Wildlife Crime Officer, hold up pictures of an elephant and a bangle made from elephant ivory, in Hong Kong. Photo: EPAIn the face of growing criticism, sniffer dogs are set to be deployed to root out smugglers illegally exporting ivory, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) told the South China Morning Post.

It has been illegal to import or export ivory from Hong Kong without a licence for almost 25 years – yet research conducted by leading scholars Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne has warned “serious smuggling” is continuing by these means – with almost all ivory items sold by retailers in the city smuggled to mainland China.

Parallel trading in ivory products fuels illegal activity, the researchers said. Retail prices for half of the 30,856 pieces of ivory on sale – including trinkets, rings, pendants and bangles – are 50 per cent lower in Hong Kong than in Beijing.

“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 getting caught,” said report co-author Martin.

The report called for more routine spot-checks at the Shenzhen land-border crossings, using sniffer dogs, because almost all of the ivory on sale in Hong Kong is small enough to be hidden in suitcases undetected.

“Law enforcement efforts are inadequate on both sides of the border, due to the huge number of people and massive amounts of luggage, insufficient numbers of inspectors or detection, and weak penalities. Inspections concentrate on the mainland Chinese side on taxable luxury items and drugs, not wildlife products,” the report concluded.

A herd of elephants walks in Kenya, as the highest mountain in Africa Mount Kilimanjaro, in neighbouring Tanzania, is seen in the background. Photo: AP

Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, added: “Africa’s elephants are in crisis, with 100,000 killed for their ivory in just three years between 2010 and 2012. Without better controls on Hong Kong’s shops and borders the ivory trade in the territory will continue to represent a major threat to survival of the species.”

The team documented evidence that 90 per cent of all buyers of ivory in Hong Kong were from the mainland, citing retailers and ivory shopkeepers.

Meanwhile, top green group WWF Hong Kong announced it wanted to see an end to the sale of ivory and the closure of commercial processing activities.

Responding to the report, the AFCD said a feasibility study is underway to deploy specially-trained dogs to detect illegal imports at Hong Kong International Airport and land-border checkpoints.

“There is no evidence showing that Hong Kong’s legal ivory trade contributes to the poaching of elephants in Africa or provides a cover for the laundering of smuggled illegal ivory. In fact, Hong Kong is not a destination for illegal ivory,” a spokesman insisted.

Ng King-hong, Hong Kong Customs & Excise Department, briefs the media on a seizure of 790 kilogrammes of ivory valued about $7.9 million at Hong Kong International Airport during inspection passenger baggage in transit arriving from Angola and destined for Cambodia in 2014. Photo: Nora TamThe Customs and Excise Department said frontline officers maintained constant vigilance over travellers, cargo shipments and cross-border boundary vehicles as it tackled the scourge of smuggling.

“We have adopted an intelligence-led approach and employed risk management techniques as well as advanced examination equipment in our daily operation,” a spokesman for the department said.

The Customs department added that it remained in close contact with colleagues from the AFCD, and law enforcement counterparts in mainland China and overseas to share criminal intelligence and coordinate investigations and operations.