Hong Kong, 21st April 2017—Surveys by TRAFFIC of Hong Kong’s ivory markets found traders at 27 out of 76 licensed ivory outlets (36%) encouraging buyers to smuggle ivory out of the city without the appropriate export permits.
The market surveys, published today in the report Closing Strategy: Ending ivory trade in Hong Kong, also found that 59% of the outlets did not have (or even claim to possess) ivory retail licences—a violation of local ivory trading terms and making it impossible for consumers to distinguish those premises trading legally from exclusively black market operations.
Under current Hong Kong legislation registered pre-1990 ivory can be legally sold by licensed dealers although it cannot be taken out of the city without a government issued permit, in line with provisions under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
“Insufficient compliance by the city’s licensed traders highlights major shortcomings with Hong Kong’s current regulation of the local ivory trade,” said Wilson Lau, a Programme Officer with TRAFFIC and a co-author of the latest report.
“Clearly, the regulatory framework together with law enforcement efforts are proving insufficient deterrents, judging by how many ivory traders openly violate the rules.”
In a recent court case in Hong Kong, two men from a licensed ivory outlet were convicted of illegal possession and sale of ivory that was obtained from elephants that recently died, providing evidence that some illegal ivory has been laundered into the local market.
Hong Kong is entering a critical time for its centuries old ivory trade, with the Legislative Council soon to consider a proposed amendment bill that would see the phase out of the city’s domestic ivory market over the next five years.
The Council’s deliberations will be set against a backdrop of Hong Kong’s significant role in the international illegal ivory trade, with some of the world’s largest ivory seizures interdicted at the city’s borders between 2010 and 2013, worth an estimated HKD84 million (~USD11 million) in 2013 alone. They included ten large-scale seizures totalling more than 16 tonnes of ivory, each more than 500 kg in size, a weight considered indicative of the involvement of organized criminal networks.
Just how much of the illegal ivory was intended for the local ivory market, or other destinations such as mainland China, is unclear. TRAFFIC also previously reported a considerable jump in seizures of worked ivory from 2009 to 2015 in Hong Kong, often by smugglers in checked baggage on flights originating from Africa.
“The case for Hong Kong to address the illegal ivory trade is now unequivocal, and the proposed phasing out of the local ivory trade is a clear indication the Hong Kong Government recognizes this need to take action,” said Dr Yannick Kuehl, TRAFFIC's Regional Director for East Asia.
“Hong Kong’s legislators need to make sure that an ambitious ivory trade ban is passed at the Legislative Council, in line with global and regional developments.”
Last month, the Chinese Government shut down 12 carving factories and 55 licensed ivory retail outlets in the first phase of its ambitious commitment to cease all commercial trade in ivory by the end of 2017 in mainland China.
The new report cautions this development could lead to illegal movement of unsold ivory from mainland China to other active ivory markets in the region, including Hong Kong, if current plans to end the city’s ivory trade market are not shortened from the proposed, but not yet agreed, five-year phase out.
“Heavier penalties, which would raise the deterrence against would-be offenders and discourage criminal syndicates from using the city as a favoured smuggling channel, is urgently needed,” said Cheryl Lo, Senior Wildlife Crime Officer, WWF Hong Kong.
“The proposal to increase maximum penalties to 10 years’ imprisonment is significant and reasonable, and should be supported by legislators together with the local ivory trade ban.”
The new TRAFFIC report also highlights the fate of Hong Kong’s 75 tonnes of registered ivory stocks which requires urgent action by the Hong Kong Government: unless properly managed, this stockpile could leak into other ivory markets once the local trade ban is enacted. Other challenges concern illegal ivory transactions through the internet and social media, and the regulation of antique ivory.
“Hong Kong’s local ivory trade ban must be accompanied by an amplified suite of monitoring and law enforcement activities if the full impact of the proposed ban is to be realized,” said Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC’s Elephant and Rhino Programme Leader.
“Experience teaches us that bans with commensurate investment and dedication to their effective implementation would deliver the best outcome.”
TRAFFIC’s work on Closing Strategy: Ending ivory trade in Hong Kong was generously supported by WWF Hong Kong and GIZ on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the German Federal Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB).