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Despite the government incinerating its 29 tonne stockpile of illegal ivory earlier this year, there’s a huge amount of ivory that is being bought and sold legally in the city. Judd Boaz finds out why.
Elephant ivory. It’s as controversial as it is desired, especially throughout greater China, where the threatened animals’ tusks are sought for making intricate ornaments, mahjong tiles, chopsticks and other crafts. Despite the fact that international trade in ivory has been illegal since 1989, at the time that the ban was put in place by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), Hong Kong had 665t of ivory in stockpiles, most of it sourced through trade law loopholes. The remainder of this legal ivory stockpile, which totals 117.1t of ivory, is being sold in our city today. This is four times more than the city’s 29.6t stockpile of illegal ivory, seized at border checkpoints over the last 40 years.
On May 14 this year, the government announced that the illegal stockpile is to be incinerated. The aim is to reduce global demand for the valuable tusks. Yet Hong Kong remains one of the largest legal ivory markets in the world.
Numerous campaigns in recent years have lambasted the flagrant sale of ivory in Hong Kong. Touted as a symbolic move to support the fight against poaching and illicit trading of ivory, the incineration of the contraband ivory stockpile was encouraged by a petition of 64,000 signatures collected by local NGO Hong Kong for Elephants in January and delivered to the government.
But Hong Kong for Elephants is now taking the fight one step further, and is now focussing on the more secretive legal ivory trade. There are currently 447 different traders in the city with licenses that allow them to possess and sell ivory and local privacy laws mean they are able to remain anonymous.
Executive director of Hong Kong for Elephants, Sharon Kwok, has helped lead the charge in the fight against ivory trading. The NGO feels that any trade in ivory, even if technically legal, stokes demand and therefore fuels the illegal poaching industry. Kwok and Hong Kong for Elephants are ready to take to the streets once again on October 4 to call for an end to the legal ivory trade. “I feel that we made a difference [last time],” says Kwok, referring to their petition that called for the destruction of all stockpiled ivory. Hong Kong for Elephants also successfully protested earlier this year against the large retail chains who had been selling ivory, rallying outside the state-owned Chinese Arts and Crafts in Tsim Sha Tsui. Chinese Arts and Crafts subsequently suspended their sales of elephant ivory in the middle of March.
In a domino-like effect after this announcement, other major retail chains began to fold to public pressure, with Yue Hwa Chinese Products Emporium saying it would cease ivory sales on May 7, while Wing On Department store ended their ivory retailing in July. “These were the largest retailers of ivory in Hong Kong and they’ve completely stopped selling ivory. They don’t want to lose face,” says Kwok, who believes the move shows leadership for the industry.
While these stores’ decisions certainly struck a blow to the legal ivory trade here, the battle to end the trade altogether continues. Kwok says she is hoping for a complete ban on all ivory trading on Hong Kong shores. Kwok and other anti ivory campaigners object because the ivory industry goes hand in hand with the poaching of elephants, particularly in Africa. One recent study, conducted by Save the Elephants, discovered that around 100,000 elephants were killed for their tusks between 2010 and 2012. This stems from the demand for ivory from increasing numbers of affluent consumers in China and Southeast Asia.
Hong Kong’s position as a thoroughfare for trade in illicit goods en route to the Mainland and other countries in the region gives activist groups such as Hong Kong for Elephants a chance to combat the trade at the central hub. “When the buying stops, the killing can stop too,” Kwok says. “I believe that it is doable.”
The government, however, denies that Hong Kong is a major trade hub for ivory. “There is no evidence or intelligence indicating that Hong Kong has become a transit point for the smuggling of endangered species,” a Customs and Excise department spokesperson tells us. An AFCD (Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department) spokesperson also tells us that they have stepped up their policing at the borders, with 70 percent more illegal ivory being intercepted in 2013 than in 2012. They also point out that Hong Kong abides by the international CITES convention regards the legality of this ivory.
So, how do the ivory dealers feel about potentially losing a source of their income, if a ban was to be enforced? We go to Causeway Bay to speak with the owner of an ivory store. “If we have to stop selling ivory, it’s no big deal,” he tells us.
“We can sell marble or jade other things.” As it stands, however, many of these smaller shop owners have no plans to cease operations on ethical grounds. “People want to buy ivory, so we sell it to them. This is just how things are,” says a worker at another Causeway Bay ivory shop. “We can’t just throw [our stocks] away like the government is doing. We’ll sell our ivory until there’s nothing left,” says another ivory retailer in Tsim Sha Tsui.
With retailers clearly reluctant to give up their expensive inventory and potential profits, it falls to government legislation to spur change. “It’s whether the Hong Kong government feels it’s time to get up and do something or not,” says Kwok, who is critical of the lack of direct action. “It seems as though, nowadays, the Hong Kong government just sits there and waits until China does something before they follow suit.”
Kwok argues that the key issues behind ivory trading go deeper than bureaucratic posturing. “I don’t want it to seem like something that’s very political,” she explains. “When it comes to conservation, when it comes to flora and fauna that have just as much right to share our planet as we do, I think it should supersede politics, I think we should make it a priority. Sadly, that’s not the case.”
Hong Kong for Elephants is continuing with its activism, launching its Elephant Walk protest on October 4. Marchers will head from Chater Garden to the US Consulate and then on towards the Hong Kong Government headquarters at Tamar to lobby for new laws against ivory trading. Whether the NGO’s efforts garner the success they seek remains to be seen, but it is clear that protestors will be driven to fight against what they believe is unimaginable injustice and cruelty.
“What gives us the right to take away a species that is essential to the biodiversity of Africa and Asia?” asks Kwok. “We have no right to do it. It’s only about money.”
To find out more about the Hong Kong Elephant Walk on October 4, visit bit.ly/ElephantWalkHK.
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