OPINION: Hong Kong’s Infamous and Shadowy Ivory Trade

By Alex Hofford

It is a little known fact that the blame for the elephant poaching crisis of the 1980s, which resulted in the global ivory ban of 1989, can be laid squarely at the feet of the Hong Kong ivory traders. And now they’re at it again.

At a time when it has been scientifically proven that Africa lost 100,000 elephants from 2010 through 2012, no one in Hong Kong is questioning why the city’s ivory traders are still clinging onto their old stocks of ivory, which should have been depleted long ago.

It’s a moral outrage that these old men, who have had more than 25 years to clear out their pre-1989 ban ivory stocks, are still holding onto them.

Or are they simply pulling the wool over the eyes of the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) and topping up their existing stocks of pre-1989 convention ivory with illegally smuggled ivory fresh off the boat from Mombasa?

Hong Kong Ivory Seizures on the Increase

The recent spate of ivory seizures intercepted by the Hong Kong Customs & Excise Department with alarming and increasing regularity at Hong Kong’s port and airport would seem to suggest as much.

 

Confiscated ivory from Ivory Coast in Africa is seen at the Hong Kong Customs & Excise Department Ports and Maritime Command Centre, Kwai Chung, Kowloon, Hong Kong, 03 October 2013. Copyright Alex Hofford.
Confiscated ivory from Ivory Coast in Africa is seen at the Hong Kong Customs & Excise Department Ports and Maritime Command Centre, Kwai Chung, Kowloon, Hong Kong, 03 October 2013. Copyright Alex Hofford.

 

It’s a mystery to wildlife conservationists and animal welfare advocates in Hong Kong that with such high demand from the surging number of Chinese tourists coming here, many of whom have woefully low awareness of the poaching crisis in Africa, the total amount of “legal” ivory in the hands of the trade has barely moved more than a few kilos in the past three years.

According to Hong Kong government statistics, it was 116.5 tonnes in 2011, 118.7 tonnes in 2012, and 117.1 tonnes in 2013. Why isn’t this stockpile going down?

It’s an open secret that many tourists who come to Hong Kong smuggle ivory products back home. Wildlife crime is still not being taken seriously in this Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.

Fines and penalties for ivory trafficking remain low, as can be seen by the paltry, “slap-on-the-wrist” sentences of six months handed down by a Hong Kong magistrate to 16 Vietnamese ivory traffickers caught red-handed at Hong Kong airport in June.

 

Click on chart to enlarge it
Click on chart to enlarge it

 

Let’s be clear: Hong Kong people aren’t buying this stuff. Tourists are indirectly fueling an ivory trade that forms an integral part of the global illegal wildlife trade—the fourth largest type of illegal trafficking after drugs, arms, and human beings.

Hong Kong is not immune from the scourge of Islamic terrorism, and many consumers are unaware that by buying an ivory trinket from a store in Mong Kok, Sheung Wan, or North Point, they could just be financing terrorist militias in Africa like Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, or Lord’s Resistance Army.

The numbers on the WildLifeRisk graph show that Hong Kong ivory traders are topping up their supposed legal stocks with freshly poached ivory from Africa.

We at Hong Kong for Elephants doubt that Hong Kong’s AFCD is carrying out much more than very cursory inspections of the keeping premises of the ivory stock held by the 447 anonymous holders of ivory possession licenses. Does AFCD go deeper than merely checking whether or not those licenses are up-to-date? We doubt it.

Hong Kong Should Step Up

The unfolding crisis affecting Africa’s iconic megafauna is a cause for concern for all, and Hong Kong does have a role to play as a responsible global player.

Unfortunately, these days it is not only the sharks that we need to look out for. We also need each and everyone to stop buying ivory. The Hong Kong government could do so much more to raise awareness about this urgent issue. They could do a lot worse than start by legislating an ivory trade ban to save the magnificent African elephant before it’s too late.

Alex Hofford is founder of Hong Kong for Elephants and a wildlife campaigner for WildAid. @alexhofford

 

A photo made available 19 June 2013 shows a rhinoceros figurine made out of ivory at a store selling ivory products in Kowloon, Hong Kong, China, 19 June 2013. Dr Poole, who is based in Kenya, is China to meet with zoo directors, government officials and animal welfare groups to discuss the ivory issue. More than 7 per cent of the world's elephants were killed for their tusks in 2012, which is the highest recorded amount, according to the researcher. 40 per cent of ivory poached in Africa is bound for China, which sis still the biggest market for elephant tusks. Poole is urging the governments of Beijing and Hong Kong to ban the trade. Copyright Alex Hofford.
A photo made available 19 June 2013 shows a rhinoceros figurine made out of ivory at a store selling ivory products in Kowloon, Hong Kong, China, 19 June 2013. Copyright Alex Hofford.

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