Environment & Health HKFP Voices

Ivory ban to take 5 years? Only a bright-line rule can save the African elephant in time

By Danny Friedmann.

The recent proposal by the Hong Kong government to phase-out the ivory trade in Hong Kong over the period of half a decade takes too much time and is difficult to enforce. In five years’ time, the population of the African Savannah elephant might have plummeted beyond a sustainable level of genetic diversity for survival, just as happened to another animal of the Savannah: the cheetah.

Although the recent legislation distinguishes between the legal and illegal ivory trade based on the age and origin of the ivory, the Hong Kong government has neither checked the ivory’s age via radioisotope analysis nor the origin via genetic analysis. Therefore, the proposed legislation, which first wants to ban ivory that was acquired before 1975 and then ivory that was acquired before 1990, is not only too slow, but also unpromising without guarantees of strict enforcement.


Photo: Caroline Jurgens.

In 2007, there were less than 700,000 Savannah elephants in Africa. The Great Elephant Census (GEC) of 2016, a continent-wide survey of the African Savannah elephant between 2014 and 2015, counted only 352,271 elephants in the wild. This number is dramatically lower than was expected. So far the decline in the number of elephants have been between 27,691 and 33.687 elephants per year, according to GEC. Therefore, if this decline continues, this would mean that by 2021 – when the complete ban on the ivory trade kicks in – according to the latest Hong Kong legislative proposal, there would only be a population left of between 213,816 and 183,836 elephants.

However, the decline of the population might go much faster. Poachers kill the elephants with the largest tusks. This includes the matriarch which is the elephant cow who leads a file of daughters with their calves. When the matriarch is killed the herd’s chances of survival are mitigated, since they can no longer benefit from up to 70 years of experience from the matriarch finding water resources in the wide Savannah. Evolution has endowed elephants with a proverbial excellent spatial memory for this task. In a drought stricken season, killing one matriarch could equal to a death sentence for the whole herd. Therefore, a few erratic summers can exacerbate the negative trend.

Current situation

Poaching kills almost 100 elephants a day, according to research from the University of Utah. The same research demonstrates that more than 90 percent of the illegal ivory trade is from elephants that died less than three years ago. The demand for ivory drives new killings and the ivory trade fuels new demand. China remains the most important market for consumption of ivory. And Hong Kong is an important transit and consumption hub for ivory. In 2016, the last parts of the 28 tonnes of ivory seized by Hong Kong Customs were destroyed. Probably, this is just the top of the iceberg of the ivory trade. Hong Kong Customs have a challenging task when each year around 100 million people go from Hong Kong to Shenzhen.

ivory rally

Protesters call for the end of elephant slaughtering for ivory last year. Photo: Alex Hofford.

Hong Kong is a member of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wilde Fauna and Flora (CITES) which, unfortunately, has a low standard when protecting elephants. Hong Kong has implemented CITES’ appendices in the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance, with a decreasing level of protection. Elephants from most African countries are included in Appendix I; which protects species that are threatened with extinction and cannot be traded internationally for primarily commercial purposes. However, the elephants of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, which belong to the same species as the elephants in Appendix I, can nevertheless be found in Appendix II; species that are currently not threatened with extinction which can be traded internationally for commercial purposes, but “within strict regulations, requiring determinations of sustainability and legality”.

Hong Kong has implemented a split between an existing stock of 700 tonnes of legal ivory (of which now still 70 tonnes of legal ivory remains divided over 370 license-holders) and illegal ivory, based on the age the ivory. Also an exception was made for ivory which came from countries listed in Appendix II. However, a 2015 report by the World Wildlife Fund criticizes the Hong Kong government for not using technology to test the age and origin of the ivory. In the absence of these analyses, “laundering” of illegal ivory as legal ivory is relatively simple. License-holders can smuggle newly poached ivory, fuelling even more poaching, and use their license for the old ivory at the customs, since neither age nor origin are analysed.

Enforcement against illegal ivory seems to have low priority for the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. In 2015, they had only 8 people tasked with checking the shops selling items derived from rare and threatened species in Hong Kong, not just ivory. Perversely, the current Hong Kong legislation has implemented the CITES’ rule that allows elephant hunting trophies for non-commercial purposes.

african elephants

The Great Elephant Census (GEC) of 2016 counted only 352,271 elephants in the wild. Photo: Wikicommons.

Effective solution      

The proposed legislation will first ban import and re-export of hunting trophies and ivory carvings. The urgency of the fate of the rapidly declining elephant population calls for a more ambitious bill: a quick implementation of a bright-line rule. The ban on all ivory trade in 2017. Antique ivory carvings need to be subjected to radioisotope analyses to prove their age and need licenses, and all tusks or pieces of unworked ivory (no matter how old) must be seized. Based on the principle that ethics prevail over aesthetics, Hong Kong legislators should also consider the prohibition of the possession of any new ivory by consumers.

Hong Kong can make an invaluable contribution as a trading hub to magnify the chances that elephants will continue to roam the African Savannah. But only the strict enforcement of a bill that bans the trade and possession of all unlicensed ivory in 2017 could turn the tide.

Dr. Danny Friedmann is an independent legal researcher.


Ivory ban to take 5 years? Only a bright-line rule can save the African elephant in time