By Li Yao
With the HKSAR government’s decision to destroy a huge cache of poached ivory, conservationists have won round one. Now they’re pushing for a blanket ban on ivory sales.
Hong Kong’s recent move to destroy seized ivory should be encouraging news for elephant conservationists. They feel this might be the opportune moment to push for a ban on ivory sales as the government decision is being seen as a result of sustained campaigning by protest groups.
The Hong Kong government has confiscated nearly 30 tonnes of illegal ivory since the 1970s. What they might want to do with it was widely speculated on for a while. Wild-life conservation groups, members of the Legislative Council and web-savvy elephant lovers — mostly young people — wanted the forfeited goods destroyed. Following a spate of protests, petitions and letters, the government announced in January that 28.86 tonnes of illegal ivory would be burned over one-and-a-half years.
The incineration began on May 15. Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing said the symbolic act was intended to suppress illegal ivory trade and combat elephant poachers.
In the months preceding May, elephant lovers launched naming and shaming campaigns, targeting three large ivory retailers in Hong Kong — Wing On, Chinese Arts and Crafts and Yue Hwa Chinese Products. All three companies have decided to stop trading in ivory.
Sharon Kwok, who led the campaign, said she was surprised that the elephant protection cause caught on so fast. Kwok co-founded Hong Kong for Elephants — a broad coalition of concerned individuals and more than 60 similar-minded non-governmental organizations from Hong Kong and across the world — in August 2013.
License to sell
“The big ones (ivory retailers) have shut down. They don’t want to lose face. And they have many other businesses. But there are still a lot of small shops in Hong Kong. And the biggest problem is that the legal ivory trade provides an avenue for the illegal trade,” Kwok said.
She is referring to the fact that it is within the law to trade in ivory extracted from Asian and African elephants before 1990. The two species are listed as part of the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to which 180 countries, including China and the United States, are signatories. It’s a provision that is often manipulated to suit the purposes of unscrupulous traders.
At the antiques market along Hollywood Road and Upper Lascar Road, Sheung Wan, very few dealers still have ivory artworks on display. Those who do claim the items are made with mammoth tusks — an extinct species.
On Queen’s Road, Central, one might still find several shops dealing in artifact made from ivory. According to the owners, most of the items on display were bought legally before the ban came into effect. One of these stores, Hang Cheong Ivory Factory, is run by Leung Shue-woo and his wife. They sell ivory figurines, Buddha statues, pendants and other trinkets. An ivory crucifix and a statue featuring the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus indicate Westerners used to be the main customers. “These are leftover products from decades ago,” said Leung. “The shop will remain open until the legally-acquired ivory stock is sold out.”
Nowadays, ivory is bought mostly by the wealthy Chinese, many of them from the mainland. They often ask how they might carry the ivory back home, across the border. “Customers need to address this personally. They have to pull a few strings. We only sell ivory,” said Leung’s wife.
Legislator Elizabeth Quat Pui-fan, who shares Kwok’s view, is all for shutting down these last few stores which pretend to sell legal pre-1990 ivory — a claim that is not always tenable as undercover investigations have shown.
Until there is substantial proof that poaching of elephants and trafficking in ivory have been reduced to a minimum, the only way to go is to prevent ivory from reaching the market, Quat argued. “Most consumers have no idea that their ivory purchases are fueling the slaughter of elephants, and the money may go to criminal rings and even terrorist groups. If we can remove the legal status of trading in ivory, and make it a taboo, many law-abiding citizens will not break the law to buy it,” Quat said.
She feels the Hong Kong government has done a commendable job intercepting smuggled ivory and destroying the forfeited stock. However, it scored badly when it came to formulating trade regulations. Licensed dealers are required to sell ivory with certificates showing that the merchandise was obtained legally before the ban in 1990.
“It is generally recognized that Hong Kong Customs officers detect and seize under 10 percent of illegal wildlife parts and product shipments entering the city via the airport or Kwai Chung port. That means about 90 percent is allowed to pass. Because it is easy to switch historical ivory with new supplies, using the same certificates, freshly-poached ivory is making huge inroads into the Hong Kong market,” said Quat.
School children pitch in
Quat made a brief trip to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka last year. She returned with a resolve to protect the staggering number of elephants killed and orphaned daily as a result of ivory poaching.
She is all praise for a group of school children called Elephant Angels, campaigning for an ivory trade ban in Hong Kong. The activists include the likes of Nellie Shute, 12, an Australian girl studying at Hong Kong International School. Her school had received a specimen of ivory seized by the government for educational purposes. But Nellie felt there was a negative side to it. “Exhibiting handcrafted ivory at my school, I thought, was really forcing the idea that ivory was to be used as art,” said Nellie. She ended up persuading the school principal to return the ivory collection to the government.
Nellie participated in the Hong Kong for Elephants’ campaigns, showed up at retailers’ stores, wrote letters to officials, created an online petition to the government advocating a ban on ivory trade. She made elephant-themed cards to raise money, which is used to fund the upkeep of a three-year-old orphaned elephant, Bomani, in Nairobi.
On her facebook page, “Nellie for Ellies”, her message, “Say no to ivory. Let them live!” has attracted world-wide attention. In June, she attended a global youth leaders’ conference in Paris, where issues like poverty and illiteracy reduction came up for discussion.
Nellie said being young helps, and she hopes more kids join her. “You have a voice in the world. I think if you are young, people will be more interested to listen,” she said. “If you believe in something and are passionate about it, you shouldn’t just sit back and do nothing. I started with a school presentation about elephant poaching, I made cards, sent emails, and then I began to get in touch with people. And it has been such a great experience for me,” she added.
Ng Wang-pun, vice-president of the Chinese Manufacturers’ Association of Hong Kong, used to run an ivory factory before the ban. Ng believes international ivory trade is unlikely to reopen. But he disagrees with the Hong Kong government’s decision to have the forfeited ivory stockpile burnt. He would rather the goods seized be donated to schools and other institutions for educational purposes, more so since elephants might well be an extinct species in a few hundred years.
Besides, the craft of carving ivory — a thousand-year-old tradition — will, sadly, be lost because of the ban, Ng said.
Often ivory is carved into Buddha figurines. Many buyers, especially the Chinese, believe in feng shui and hence the propitious properties of ivory. Some of them thought tusks just fell off elephants, not realizing that tusks sawed off a poached elephant could kill it, most horribly, said Kwok.
Often poachers do not wait until elephants are fully grown. They go after young elephants with smaller tusks to meet the market demands. “Once the tusk begins showing, the poachers will kill for it. And the tusk goes way into the elephant’s skull. That is why we see more and more small-sized tusks seized by the Hong Kong authorities,” Kwok said.
Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said public awareness campaigns can make a real change.
The group organized a three-year campaign in China to make people aware that ivory comes at the cost of elephants’ lives, using outdoor, print and social media channels.
Education is everything, said lawmaker Elizabeth Quat. In Hong Kong and on the mainland, children are the ones telling their parents or grandparents not to buy ivory. It’s the students who don’t want shark fin at wedding banquets.
“Public education, we hope, will cause the demand for ivory to drop, and bring down the prices, so it will no longer be worthwhile for poachers to kill elephants,” Quat said.