By Audrey Yoo, Catherine Traywick
China's demand for elephant ivory, which is still widely seen as a status symbol on the mainland, has transformed the port city of Hong Kong into a major transit point for illegal trade.
An emperor, faced with the task of selecting a successor, devises a test: he lays out an array of valuable artifacts — items of gold, jade and ivory — and asks each of his sons to choose one treasure. One prince ponders his options for a while, before selecting an ivory scepter. The emperor is pleased. Ivory is valuable, he says, and also imbued with wisdom. The son with the scepter will rule.
This, of course, is merely a fable. But the tale of the emperor and his son hints at ivory’s enduring lure in China. For millennia, it has been seen as a symbol of wealth, a source of wisdom and a sign of nobility. This helps explain why more than 20 years after an international ban on the trade of elephant ivory, the business is booming. “With more disposable income in mainland China, many people are flaunting their wealth, and ivory is seen as a luxury product that confers status,” says Tom Milliken of the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network. “We are seeing the worst poaching of elephants and the worst illegal trade in ivory over the last 23 years.”
Slowing the slaughter may depend on the semiautonomous Chinese territory of Hong Kong. The city is a major transit point for shipments of illegal ivory on route from Africa to mainland China. And, though it has taken some aggressive steps to combat smuggling, the trade persists. Reliable statistics on how much ivory is smuggled through Hong Kong are hard to come by, but experts note that a substantial portion of China-bound ivory passes through the port city before heading north, through the Pearl River Delta, and to the country’s ivory heartland, Guangzhou. There, in factories, tusks cut from dead elephants are transformed into decorative carvings of all shapes and sizes.
Despite the vigilant policing of the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department, which has twice been awarded the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) secretary general’s Certificate of Commendation for cracking down on illegal wildlife trade, curbing smuggling is difficult. The volume of trade that passes through Hong Kong’s ports is simply too large to inspect wholesale, say customs officials, and ivory smugglers know that the odds of being detected are relatively low. Of the 60,000 containers that move through the port every day, 700 customs agents are able to inspect less than 1% of them — those profiled as high risk. “It’s virtually impossible for any agency in Hong Kong to inspect every container,” says Lam Tak-fai, the head of Ports and Maritime Command at Hong Kong’s customs agency. “No country in the world could do that.”
Even when illegal consignments are found, it’s difficult to identify, let alone prosecute, the smugglers. More....