National Geographic: Hong Kong Starts Countdown to Ivory Trade Ban


Hong Kong's five-year plan for closing its ivory market will eliminate a legal loophole exploited by smugglers.

Today Hong Kong has taken a major step forward in phasing out its ivory trade. The government submitted its proposed plan to the Legislative Council, which began debating the details. This is a key step in a long process to shut down both the Hong Kong and global ivory markets.

Hong Kong is a major ivory retail market and a key transit point, especially into mainland China. Tens of thousands of ivory items are displayed for sale in high-rent tourist areas while seizures of huge quantities of ivory by customs authorities confirm its place as an ivory smuggling hub.

After the international trade in ivory was banned in 1989, the city-state instituted a license system for existing legally acquired commercial ivory stocks held by private traders, which at the time totaled 665 metric tons. Studies suggest that amount should have been exhausted by 2004, but today roughly 370 licensed ivory traders collectively hold about 77 tons of ivory.

report by the advocacy group WildAid, together with undercover video by independent investigators provided to WildAid and WWF-Hong Kong, showed that ivory traders used a “loophole riddled system” to routinely replenish their legally held private ivory stocks with illegal ivory from recently poached elephants. For instance, because the licenses only record weights and are not connected to a specific tusk or product, traders “reuse” their licenses.

Promised by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying during his January 13 Policy Address, the new plan would close legal loopholes through which traffickers smuggle black market ivory. It follows unanimous passage in December 2015 of a nonbinding motion in the legislature, spurred by public petitions, for a commercial ivory ban in the city-state.

The plan puts forward a five-year timetable, until the end of 2021, for traders to liquidate their legal ivory stocks. It also suggests that “no compensation should be given,” because of the proposed lengthy grace period and the fact that ivory sales make up such a small portion of traders’ business. And it proposes that penalties be increased.


Some key points about the plan:

  • Environmental NGOs welcome that a deadline has been set. “It’s definitely a good thing that it’s moving forward,” says Hong Kong-based WildAid campaigner Alex Hofford. “But it’s too slow.”
  • legal analysis released Friday by WWF-Hong Kong shows that the mechanisms to completely phase out the trade could be put in place within two years. “Traders have already been given 26 years to get rid of their stockpile,” says Cheryl Lo, WWF-Hong Kong’s senior wildlife crime officer. “They 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.”
  • Ivory traders expressed displeasure at the plan in a closed-door meeting with the government, saying they should be free to sell their legally acquired ivory or get compensation.
  • The government plan says its review of penalties against illegal ivory sales and trafficking aims to raise them to have a “much stronger deterrent effect.” The maximum penalty now is two years imprisonment and roughly $650,000 (HKD 5 million). According to Hong Kong government data, between 2011 and 2013 fines averaged between $2,500 and $7,700, with little or no jail time. And as recently as June 22, a man in Hong Kong was sentenced to a fine of $640 and two months in prison for smuggling 217 pounds (99 kilograms) of ivory, nearly 15 pounds (seven kilos) of hornbill beak, and almost four pounds (two kilos) of agarwood, together worth $129,000.
  • Penalties differ for noncommercial and commercial wildlife crimes, and the latter are hard to prove. The government proposes unifying the penalties and increasing them “to reflect the severity of offences” and make the crimes indictable. NGOs like WildAid applaud these steps but are concerned about the legal intricacies. Illegal sales and trafficking of ivory now tend to fall under Hong Kong’s endangered species ordinance, which means that cases are heard in a lower court and typically don’t involve intense investigation. WildAid wants to make sure that penalties are severe enough (seven to 10 years' jail time) and that wildlife crimes are prosecuted under a different ordinance that can then trigger the city’s Organized and Serious Crimes Ordinance. That ordinance “can unleash the full force of real police investigative powers to take down the ten or so wildlife kingpins living in Hong Kong,” says WildAid’s Hofford. “These are the crooked businessmen that are procuring freshly poached elephant ivory from the Chinese [syndicates] and supplying it to the bigger players on the Hong Kong government's list of 371 licensed ivory traders.”

Today’s debate in the Legislative Council will be followed by more discussion and feedback from the public and trade groups. A separate plan will then go to Hong Kong’s Executive Council to make the necessary administrative changes to the licensing system before the main bill amendment comes back to the Legislative Council for passage.

Despite the lengthy process, this proposed plan is an encouraging step, says WWF-Hong Kong’s Cheryl Lo. “The Hong Kong government has listened to the people and legislators. It sends a message to traders that there is an absolute end to the ivory trade.”

Laurel Neme is a freelance writer and author of Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab Is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species and Orangutan Houdini. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

View this article on National Geographic.