Wilson Lau says Hong Kong must do more to regulate its domestic ivory trade if it wants to tackle its reputation as a global smuggling hub
The streets have been occupied in more than 136 cities recently, but for very different reasons than those of the Hong Kong movement. Marches across six continents were held on October 4 in a global show of force against the poaching of elephants and rhinos, which have seen drastic drops in their populations in Africa.
Tougher action, especially by governments along the illegal ivory trade routes, is urgently needed. As Hong Kong remains a major smuggling hub for illegal ivory, there is no room for complacency here.
However, in June the environment secretary asserted, in a reply to a Legislative Council question, that its licensing regime for domestic ivory sellers was working just fine, indicating no changes to existing controls were necessary to curb the illegal ivory trade. I beg to differ.
The sheer scale of smuggled ivory, in spite of existing measures, shows that additional efforts are necessary. Hong Kong’s pivotal role in the global ivory trade is highlighted in a new report by Civic Exchange, which shows that the city’s Customs and Excise Department intercepted nearly 8 tonnes of undeclared ivory last year, worth more than HK$80 million. This was the largest quantity of ivory ever confiscated at Hong Kong’s borders. During the 2012-2013 period, it is estimated that ivory intercepted in Hong Kong formed about 15 per cent of all ivory confiscated worldwide.
Much of the illegal ivory intercepted in Hong Kong is believed to be destined for the mainland, where legal and illegal ivory sales thrive. But there is reason to suggest some of it may be used to prop up supplies of Hong Kong’s ivory retailers.
Analysis by Wild Life Risk, a Hong Kong-based advocacy organisation, suggests the city’s legally held ivory stocks should have been exhausted by the mid-2000s. Yet data from licensed ivory holders shows their supplies have declined at a much slower pace – despite all the intercepted illegal ivory and poaching, the growing mainland markets for ivory and increasing numbers of mainlanders visiting Hong Kong during the period.
Hong Kong’s government has followed the lead of those in a number of other countries by destroying its stockpile of illegal ivory. Its efforts in destroying 28 tonnes in phases are laudable. But it lacks a foolproof strategy for tackling the illegal ivory trade within its borders – especially when domestic ivory sales persist and serve as a front for the laundering of illegal ivory.
Nations such as the US are tackling this by instituting a ban on domestic sales of ivory to shut down all legal channels for the trade. Another approach is to improve monitoring systems of the domestic ivory trade. Certification systems for individual ivory pieces – much like the mainland’s approach – could be applied in Hong Kong, but made more effective with emerging technologies in DNA sampling and carbon dating, which can show where and when the ivory was taken from an elephant. Digital inscriptions on individual pieces could allow authorities to more efficiently identify illegal pieces and improve surveillance of the ivory market.
We must use additional options like these to boost existing controls on illegal ivory, and tackle Hong Kong’s unfortunate label as an ivory smuggling hub.
Wilson Lau is project manager at Civic Exchange
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