By Danny Lee
Animal-rights activists laud Wing On department store chain's decision to kick out tenant engaged in the controversial trade of elephant tusks
Retail giant Wing On is banning ivory sales in its stores, in a move hailed as another significant victory in the battle against elephant poaching.
The department store chain has won praise from campaigners for its decision to kick out a tenant that sells products made from elephant tusks.
"With effect from July 7, the business co-operation between Wing On Department Stores and its concession counter, which sells ivory products, will be ceased," the company said.
Wing On has faced pressure from campaigners since pictures emerged online of a newly renovated ivory sales counter, offering carvings and ornaments, in one of its five Hong Kong stores.
"This is a most important decision. Thank you for this farsighted decision. And thank you in the name of the elephants," campaigner Birgit Hanan wrote on Wing On's Facebook page.
Local environmentalists welcomed the retail giant's move, saying it bolstered efforts to counter demand for ivory, especially from the mainland, where it is a status symbol and sometimes known as "white gold".
Wing On's move follows the Hong Kong government's decision in January to burn almost all of its 30-tonne ivory stock, built up through customs seizures since 1976. "[Our decision is based on\ the way we work - always reviewing what we are doing and what the community wants from us," Wing On executive director Mark Kwok Chi-yat told the Sunday Morning Post.
Campaign group Hong Kong for Elephants co-founder Alex Hofford said Wing On's move was another victory, but that more work was still needed to stop the sale of "blood ivory".
"Obviously we are delighted that Wing On has seen fit to turn its back on the dirty ivory trade by joining a growing list of stores in Hong Kong that take their corporate social responsibilities seriously," Hofford said.
"Wing On definitely deserves a pat on the back," animal-rights activist and actress Sharon Kwok Sau-wan said.
Activists are now set to turn their attention to Yue Hwa Chinese Products, the last big player in the ivory trade, with a protest scheduled for May 14 at its six-storey emporium in Jordan.
While the sale of ivory remains legal in Hong Kong, buyers are not allowed to take it out of the city. But undercover reporters caught Yue Hwa staff apparently discussing how to flout the export ban.
Kwok said a steady flow of mainland buyers were coming to Hong Kong to seek out authentic ivory products. She called for action against "small stores and 'holes in the wall' that are still blatantly selling ivory".
Wildlife groups fear smugglers are using increasingly sophisticated techniques to import and export elephant ivory. Kwok says elephant products are being passed off as mammoth ivory - which is legal to trade - when obtaining customs paperwork.
"It would be great if Hong Kong could ban the ivory trade altogether. It is such a small market," she said.
One of the last remaining traditional department store chains in Hong Kong, Wing On operates stores in Sheung Wan, Jordan, Tsim Sha Tsui, Taikoo Shing and Discovery Bay. But the retail giant's business has in recent years been squeezed by upscale malls and luxury goods outlets.
The ivory trade has become increasingly lucrative since a worldwide ban was imposed in 1989.
Last year, the Chinese Arts and Crafts chain put a 65kg pair of tusks on sale for HK$15 million - more than 50 times the price it asked for a bigger pair of tusks in 2002. The state-owned chain has since withdrawn ivory from sale in its Hong Kong stores.