Hong Kong Closes Loophole in Ivory Ban, Outlawing All Sales


Tiffany May, The New York Times

Date Published

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HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s legislature voted on Wednesday to ban all ivory sales by 2021, closing what activists called a major loophole in the global effort to end the trade and protect elephants from poaching.

The ivory trade has been banned in most of the world since 1990 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or Cites, which Hong Kong and all but a handful of countries have agreed to honor. But the sale of antique ivory acquired before the 1970s had remained legal here. Elephant tusks and ivory statues, carvings and chopsticks are still sold in Hong Kong’s antique stores.

City officials originally said that allowing the sale of antique ivory would give local traders time to liquidate their stocks and find a new line of work.

But fresh ivory has continued to make its way into Hong Kong.

In July, for example, 7.2 tons of elephant tusks were found concealed under frozen fish in a shipment from Malaysia.

Activists and lawmakers cite such incidents as evidence that the ivory trade has profited from the Hong Kong loophole, with traders creating an incentive for poaching by selling new ivory among antiques.

“Today is a great day for elephants,” Alex Hofford, a campaigner with WildAid Hong Kong, said in a statement after the city’s Legislative Council voted 49-4 to phase out antique ivory sales. “With great support from the Hong Kong people, our five-year campaign has finally paid off.”

Despite the high volume of ivory that passes through the city, most Hong Kong residents do not think it should be sold, polls have indicated. In a survey conducted by WildAid and Hong Kong University in 2014, 96 percent of respondents said they had never purchased ivory and 71 percent supported banning ivory sales in Hong Kong.

Opponents of the ban argue that the trade should be preserved for its artistic and historical significance. Some lawmakers have suggested that the government should buy out ivory traders’ stock and display it in a museum, or that traders should be compensated in some other way.

“To expect ivory traders in their 60s to change industries is impractical,” one lawmaker, Peter Shiu, said Wednesday. “Do you expect them to take online courses?”

But other lawmakers pointed out that Hong Kong’s traders have had almost 30 years to get out of the business since the global ban went into effect, and noted that they would have until the end of 2021 to do so under the new law. And they opposed the idea of compensation.

“Providing any form of compensation will signal that Hong Kong is buying ivory, which will likely cause a surge in poaching,” said another lawmaker, Ted Hui.

Wildlife advocacy groups say tens of thousands of African elephants are killed for their tusks each year.

China has historically been a major center of demand for ivory, but it banned all sales at the end of December, following a partial ban and a public awareness campaign. Chinese state media said last month that the price of raw ivory had fallen by 65 percent.

Activists were concerned that China’s moves against ivory had caused a surge in demand in Hong Kong. A third of licensed traders have encouraged buyers to smuggle ivory out of the city, according to a report released last year.

The efficacy of China’s ban depends on cutting off access to ivory in Hong Kong as well, lawmakers and activists said. “Hong Kong is one of the last havens for smugglers to conduct their activities with impunity,” Mr. Hui said.