HK needs tougher rules to help save elephants from extinction


Kenneth Leung Kai-cheong, Ejinsight / The Hong Kong Economic Journal

Date Published

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It is estimated that over the past five years, more than 150,000 elephants have been brutally massacred for their ivory. And in central and western Africa, hundreds of thousands of wild elephants have continued to be slaughtered by local poachers in recent years so much so they are virtually on the verge of extinction.

If we continue to turn a blind eye to these atrocities, it will just be a matter of time before elephants totally vanish from the face of the earth.

In fact, back in the 1970s, the international community noticed the plunge in the elephant population in Africa.

In order to prevent their numbers from falling further, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) included African elephants in Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1976 to tighten regulation of the international ivory trade.

However, the measure proved ineffective, and as the death toll continued to rise at an alarming rate, the international community finally reached a consensus in 1989 to completely ban the import and export of ivory around the world.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that international ivory trade has been banned for years, today African elephants are still being poached in large numbers for their tusks.

Black market sale of ivory has turned out to be a highly lucrative business, as ivory and ivory products are still regarded by many rich people in Asia, particularly in mainland China, as luxurious and exquisite collectibles as well as a symbol of wealth and social status.

To meet the huge demand, the practice of illegal dealers in Africa poaching elephants for ivory and then smuggling it overseas has remained rife over the years. And these tusks are often shipped to certain so-called “transit points” before reaching their final destinations.

According to a report by IUCN, Hong Kong has been a major international transit point for ivory smuggling over the years, even though the government banned the import of ivory as early as 1990.

According to existing law, ivory that had been imported into Hong Kong before 1990 when the ban came into force can still be sold freely on the open market by dealers who have been issued with special permits by the authorities. According to records, there were still a total of 665 tons of unsold ivory in stock in Hong Kong in 1990.

Yet, some greedy dealers have taken the loopholes in the current laws and “refilled” their stock by smuggling ivory recently acquired in Africa and then laundering it as part of the legally imported stocks that entered Hong Kong before 1990.

That explains why even after the official ban on ivory import has been imposed for more than a quarter of a century, local dealers still have heaps of ivory for sale.

As such, closing the existing legal loopholes to combat ivory smuggling is a pressing issue not only for Hong Kong but also for the entire world. Only by eliminating the economic incentives for illegal dealers and poachers can the world truly save elephants from extinction.

As China has also pledged to ban the ivory trade, the SAR government is now planning to further tighten regulation over ivory sale in Hong Kong in a step-by-step manner, with a view to completely banning the sale of ivory and ivory products (except antique ivories) in Hong Kong by 2022.

In fact, the administration is drafting an amendment bill on the matter, which is scheduled to be tabled in Legco in the first half of 2018.

At a recent public hearing held by the Legco panel on environmental affairs to discuss the issue, some local ivory dealers strongly criticized the government for depriving them of their right to free trade.

However, the ban wasn’t imposed on them overnight: they have already been given more than two decades to sell their remaining stocks.

Besides, once passed, the new law will be enforced in three different stages and dealers will be given a substantial grace period to clear their stocks before the sale of ivory is totally banned in 2022.

I just couldn’t see any justification for their opposition to the bill. As a responsible member of the international community, Hong Kong has an obligation to join the ongoing global effort to save elephants from extinction.