Ethiopian representative in Hong Kong defends local ivory trade


Bryan Harris, South China Morning Post

Date Published

Ethiopia’s diplomatic representative in Hong Kong has emerged as one of the city’s most outspoken defenders of the ivory trade, despite the East African nation’s efforts to stem the flow of “white gold” across its borders.

Dennis Ng Wang-pun heads up the Ethiopian diplomatic office in Hong Kong, based in the Hung Hom premises of his company Polaris, a jeweller that previously traded in ivory.

Both the business and the consulate share the same fax number, according to the company website and that of the Hong Kong government’s protocol division.

Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa is a key transit point for ivory leaving Africa en route to Asia and last year authorities there arrested 106 people in connection with illegal ivory trafficking – nearly all of them mainland Chinese transit passengers.

The Ethiopian government has made stringent efforts to stop the trade, including hosting workshops for Chinese citizens living in Africa and publicly incinerating its entire 6.1-tonne ivory stockpile.

However, documents seen by the Sunday Morning Post reveal Ng as an outspoken opponent of destroying seized ivory, as well as banning the trade.

Destroying the stockpile or [banning] the trade can’t solve the problem

In a letter sent to the Hong Kong government last week – obtained by the Post – Ng said: “There are many ways to handle the ivory stockpile. Destroying the confiscated stockpile or issuing a complete ban on the trade cannot solve the problem!”

In previous letters to the government and legislators, Ng said that as a former player in the ivory industry he was “deeply heartbroken” to hear the authorities would destroy Hong Kong’s then-stockpile of 28 tonnes.

The destruction would end the “precious tradition” of ivory carving, Ng said, adding that the government could use the materials to instead build an “ivory theme park to promote elephant protection.”

As an honorary consul, Ng’s powers fall short of those of a career diplomat, but his comments are likely to cause embarrassment amid heated debate and shifting attitudes on elephant conservation.

Ng did not respond to messages left with his assistant.

Emails sent to the Ethiopian consulate in Hong Kong and the embassy in Beijing went unanswered. A spokesman for the embassy said: “Let me think it over.”

Since last year, Hong Kong has been gradually incinerating its ivory stockpile – a move aimed at demonstrating the authorities’ determination to stop the illegal trade.

However, the city also maintains a legal market, which allows 413 anonymous dealers to trade ivory obtained prior to a 1989 international ban.

Yet the size of those private reserves has not dropped significantly over recent years, leading many anti-ivory campaigners – including some prominent pro-establishment legislators – to believe ivory is being smuggled and mixed into the cache.

A recent University of Hong Kong study showed overwhelming public support for a ban on the local sale of ivory – a prospect the government has ruled out as unnecessary.

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, which oversees the city’s ivory regime, says the current regulatory framework is effective.

The sentiment is increasingly at odds with Beijing, which is becoming more vocal about wiping out the trade.

“We will strictly control ivory processing and trade until the commercial processing and sale of ivory and its products are eventually halted,” said Zhao Shucong, minister of the state forestry administration, following the destruction of 662kg of ivory in Beijing late last month.

Ng is not the first diplomat ensnared in an ivory row.

A report by NGO the Environmental Investigation Agency in November found Chinese officials travelling to Tanzania on a state visit with President Xi Jinping bought so much ivory the local market price soared.

The claims were rejected by both the Tanzanian and Chinese governments.