Hong Kong’s tightly controlled programme to destroy one of the world’s biggest stockpiles of illicit ivory has come under fire for its lack of transparency from a respected global watchdog.
Unlike cities on the mainland and around the world, independent observers such as non- government organisations and the media are banned from witnessing the closed-door destruction of the Hong Kong’s ivory stockpile – a regulation that confounds wildlife campaigners.
Yannick Kuehl, the regional director of Traffic, which monitors the international wildlife trade, said opening up the incinerations would help bolster trust in the process and promote Hong Kong as a model for wildlife conservation.
The government insists the current practice of only allowing members of a statutory advisory body to attend is sufficient.
But Kuehl said: “I don’t see any good reason not to allow independent third-party audits of the destruction. Monitoring would allow the Hong Kong government to set an example and role model in transparency regarding the destruction of ivory stockpiles.
“The audits would ensure that trust in these processes is installed, and Traffic stands by ready to support such actions.”
China is considered the world’s largest consumer market for ivory, and much of the illicit contraband transits Hong Kong en route to the mainland.
In 2013, about 15 per cent – some 8 tonnes – of all the illegal ivory seized around the world was confiscated in Hong Kong, while a further 80 per cent was seized at source in East Africa.
After the record seizure that year, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department last May began a phased destruction of the city’s stockpile of nearly 30 tonnes of illegal ivory. However, with the exception of the opening ceremony at the incineration facility, neither media nor non-governmental groups have been allowed to monitor the monthly ivory bonfires.
“It shows a lack of PR from the Hong Kong government. This is a chance to cash in and get some good publicity, but it chose not to do so,” said Andrea Crosta, executive director of the Elephant Action League.
A spokesman for the AFCD said the department had invited members of a statutory advisory body on endangered-species protection to witness the incinerations. “Due to its independent nature, we consider that the [body] is an appropriate body to monitor the whole ivory-destruction process,” the spokesman said.
However, activists claim the advisory body is akin to a fox guarding the chicken coop.
“The committee is in dire need of reform, as its membership is currently stacked with members from the wildlife trade sector,” said Alex Hofford, a WildAid wildlife campaigner. “These include a reptile-shop owner and florist, as well [as] two members representing the traditional-Chinese-medicine sector,” he said.
The concerns about transparency have been exacerbated by a decision by the department in January not to disclose a list of Hongkongers licensed to possess ivory for commercial purposes – despite such information being available on the mainland and in other jurisdictions. The department cited privacy concerns for legal ivory owners when making the announcement.
Kuehl said: “I don’t know why Hong Kong decided not to be more transparent. Why would sellers of legal ivory need to be hidden or protected?”
In 2013, 447 individuals were licensed to sell 117 tonnes of ivory obtained before the 1989 international ivory ban came into force in Hong Kong in 1990. The AFCD did not have figures available for the number of licence holders or the size of the legal stockpile last year.
Wildlife campaigners fear the list could contain speculators, who are hoarding ivory with the hope that the price will rise if elephants become extinct.
“Speculators are emerging as a real roadblock for the elephant-conservation movement,” Hofford said.
“These speculators could be rich and famous, and they could be in positions of power … We think that is probably the real reason why the Hong Kong government is reluctant to release this now-notorious list to the public.”