Hong Kong moves one step closer to banning the commercial trade of ivory

By Elisa Chiaro, Duško Babić and Ivana Menalo

A recent bill launched by the Hong Kong government to ban the commercial trade of ivory is undoubtedly a great success – not only for Global Rights Compliance (GRC), but for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and animal rights activists worldwide.

GRC’s team of international lawyers have contributed to the efforts of a ban through drafting a study commissioned by WWF-Hong Kong entitled, Feasibility Study on the Ban of Hong Kong’s Ivory Trade, finding that an ivory ban could be legally implemented within two years under current Hong Kong law. GRC collaborated with leading environmental lawyers at Baker & McKenzie in the United States, WWF-Hong Kong and TRAFFIC East Asia.

The growing demand for ivory

During the 1980s an estimated 100,000 elephants per year were killed. This led to a near total ban on the international trade of ivory through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which allowed for the recovery of some animal populations. In recent years, the growing demand for ivory has led to a resurgence of illegal trafficking of ivory, involving organised international crimes.

According to a 2015 WWF report, the illegal wildlife trade is the 4th largest illicit trade with an annual value of over $19 million and is trafficked in the same way of drugs and weapons. Of major concern to WWF is the killing of elephants of which 30,000 are killed each year, mostly for their tusks. 

The commercial trade of ivory in Hong Kong

A ban on the commercial trade of ivory in Hong Kong would be a fundamental step towards eradicating poaching of elephants in Africa and Asia. As the world’s largest ivory trade market, Hong Kong is a hub for the smuggling of illegal ivory, especially to mainland Chinese tourists which represent over 90 per cent of ivory buyers.

This ban would be pivotal considering its ranking position in seized ivory contraband: as a gateway to China, the biggest amount of recently extracted ivory are normally transited through Hong Kong’s ports, and according to WWF, the city has ranked 5th with 33 tons of ivory seized in the period between 2000 and 2013. The largest seizure of ivory in the last 30 years occurred in July 2017, Hong Kong authorities seized a record 7,2 tons of ivory (a market value of 72 million HK$, approximately 8m Euro/7m £) was found hidden in a Malaysian shipment container, beneath frozen fish cartons. An investigation is ongoing.

According to existing Hong Kong Laws, any person found guilty of importing or exporting unmanifested cargo is liable to a maximum fine of 2m HK$ and seven years’ imprisonment (Import-Export Ordinance); and any person found guilty of importing or exporting an endangered species without a licence is liable to a maximum fine of 5m HK$ and two years’ imprisonment (Protection of Endangered Species and Plants Ordinance).

The bill to ban the trade in Hong Kong

Despite existing laws, the ivory trade has not been banned yet in Hong Kong. A new amendment to the Protection of Endangered Species and Plants Ordinance was presented to the legislative council on 14 June 2017. The proposed bill would ban both import and export of raw and worked Ivory by 2021 along with banning of possession and sale of any ivory obtained before 1990.

Other jurisdictions are moving toward similar bans. In the USA, some states (New York, New Jersey and California whose key ports are connected to illegal trade of ivory) have restricted all ivory trade in their territory. Similarly, in March 2015 the Thailand government prohibited the possession, trade and sale of ivory from African elephants.

As it stands today, the commercial trade of pre-1990 ivory is allowed, while a substantial illegal market of post-1990 ivory is in place. As already advocated by GRC in its feasibility study, a ban on the commercial trade of ivory is crucial, subject to narrow exceptions (which might include for law enforcement, scientific and educational purposes, old antiques, and bona fide personal possession). The adoption of strict measures, coupled with an appropriate enforcement action, is likely to diminish the illegal ivory trade in Hong Kong and ensure that elephants are not on the path to extinction.