Animals Business Hong Kong

Traditional art or brutal industry? LegCo panel debates plan to phase out ivory trade by 2021

The Hong Kong Legislative Council debated a government plan to phase out the city’s ivory trade within a five-year period on Monday.

The proposal, announced last June, will phase out the trade of ivory obtained before Hong Kong implemented the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) provisions in 1975 and 1990. The trade of post-CITES products has already been banned.

Subsequently, the government aims to ban the possession of all ivory for commercial purposes – except antique ivory – by 2021.

Ivory at Oriental Arts Jewelry Limited.

Ivory at Oriental Arts Jewelry Limited. Photo: Alex Hofford, WildAid.

The Chief Executive in Council approved the plan last December, and Under Secretary for the Environment Christine Loh aims to pass a bill approving the plan in June 2017.

See also: Hong Kong’s ivory trade: When the buying stops, the killing can stop too

LegCo’s Panel on Environmental Affairs debated the plan in a meeting chaired by lawmaker Tanya Chan on Monday.

Pro-establishment legislator Elizabeth Quat spoke in support of the plan, calling the ivory trade “brutal” after displaying a photograph of a maimed elephant. “If the whole world bans the ivory trade, and Hong Kong waits five years, wouldn’t Hong Kong become the centre of the trade?” she asked.

Similarly, legislator Leung Yiu-chung moved a motion to ban the ivory trade by the end of 2017 – not 2021 – in line with mainland China’s timeline for its own ban. He added that Hong Kong’s colonial government already implemented measures to help former ivory traders switch their lines of business back in the 1990s.

The lawmakers were supported by environmental NGOs WildAid and World Wildlife Fund, who demonstrated outside LegCo. They presented a petition signed by over 90,000 Hongkongers asking the government to ban the ivory trade.

Traditional Chinese art

Several pro-establishment lawmakers such as Shiu Ka-fai, Frankie Yick and Junius Ho expressed reservations on the plan, however, saying that ivory craft was part of traditional Chinese art and culture.

Two weeks ago, lawmaker Regina Ip met with ivory traders and promised to follow up on their concerns. “Over the past decades, the government said that it would allow the trade to apply for permits to sell and store ivory raw materials,” she said in a Facebook post. “Many people invested in the business with their life savings.”

The traders said that it would be unfair to destroy or confiscate Hong Kong’s 70 tonnes of remaining ivory stock within a five-year deadline without compensation. They said they understood the Hong Kong government’s obligations under the CITES agreement, but suggested that the authorities could instead purchase ivory stocks, sell them off and set up a fund for protecting elephants.

“I understand the difficulties and suggestions of the trade,” Ip said. “I will follow up on them with the government.” However, she did not speak at the LegCo panel on Monday.

WildAid said that seven lawmakers supported the ban during Monday’s debate. “WildAid commends and applauds these legislators for choosing ethics, sustainability, compassion and good sense over greed, cruelty and crime,” the NGO said in a press release.

WildAid’s Hong Kong campaigner Alex Hofford criticised lawmakers Shiu and Yick for opposing the ban. “It was disheartening to hear dissenting legislators who, in opposition to international standards, stand squarely with a trade that aids corruption, transnational criminal networks, and terror groups,” he said.

“The future of Africa’s elephants is squarely in the hands of Hong Kong’s legislators,” he added.

Prosecution

Separately, Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said last month that it has sent the owner of an arts and crafts shop in Sheung Wan a court summons for illegal possession of ivory subject to the 1990 CITES ban. The department successfully purchased a pair of ivory chopsticks from the shop during an operation last August.

The hearing will take place at the Eastern Magistrates’ Courts on Tuesday.

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Traditional art or brutal industry? LegCo panel debates plan to phase out ivory trade by 2021