The Hong Kong government on June 27 proposed a plan to the Legislative Council to phase out the ivory trade in the region within five years. The plan would first seek to close existing loopholes that have allowed traffickers to smuggle illegal ivory into the market and would then impose an outright ban on the ivory trade.

After the ivory trade was banned globally in 1989, Hong Kong authorities instituted a license system for traders to legally sell existing privately held ivory. Smugglers have since exploited loopholes in the system to replenish legal ivory stocks with recently poached illegal ivory.

The new proposal also plans to increase penalties for illegal ivory trading and smuggling in order to create “a stronger deterrent effect.” The current maximum penalty is two years in prison and a fine of about US$650,000.

The Special Administrative Region is a major transit and consumption hub for the illegal ivory trade, as it was a major importer, trader, and manufacturer before the trade was banned.

Local lawmaker Elizabeth Quat said, “The international community has become aware that the killing of elephants can be stopped only by putting an end to such trading,” Reuters reported.

Many have welcomed the introduction of a deadline by 2021, but NGOs and some legislators argue that a span of five years is too long.

The World Wildlife Fund WWF, which commissioned a legal analysis to examine the new ivory ban, concluded that under current Hong Kong laws the government could implement a ban within two years.

Cheryl Lo, WWF-Hong Kong’s senior wildlife crime officer, says traders “knew this trade was regulated and that elephant populations were plummeting. Despite all that knowledge, they still decided to be in this business. But this high-risk, speculative behavior should not be compensated.”

Citing the WWF report, lawmaker Kenneth Chan Ka-lok (陳家洛) said, “We all feel it will not cause much effect on the industry, why should we wait?”

In response, the government has stated that shortening the five-year grace period was infeasible. It adds that the five-year period would help the government avoid a number of legal challenges.

The government says there is difficulty in banning existing ivory licenses. So Ping-man (蘇炳民), acting deputy director of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD), observed that under the current law, “only under certain circumstances can the director of AFCD void the possession licenses, and a ban on the trade is not one of the conditions.”

Undersecretary for Environment Christine Loh Kung-wai (陸恭蕙) said, “I understand that from the NGO point of view it should be banned as soon as possible, but our point of view is that it must be feasible, fair and with legitimate expectations,” Hong Kong Free Press reported.

For his part, Elvis Au Wai-kwong (區偉光), assistant director for environmental protection, said, “there must be enough time for traders to get rid of their stocks ... We need to be fair and just,” the South China Morning Post wrote.

More than 100,000 elephants were poached for their ivory between 2010 and 2012. The price of ivory per kilogram in 2015 was US$ 1,100. Although there were an estimated 3-5 million elephants worldwide at the beginning of the 20th century, there are only 470,000 left today, according to the WWF.

First Editor: J. Michael Cole
Second Editor: Olivia Yang