By Emily Matchar
Hong Kong, this skyscraper-crowned metropolis of seven million, prides itself on its modernity. But on the third floor of Yue Hwa Chinese Products, a busy department store in Kowloon, the products for sale seem anything but modern. The glass display cases are full of Buddha figurines, lucky toad charms and dragon-shaped buttons, all carved from ivory, the tusks of dead elephants.
Ivory products are taboo in much of the world due to awareness of how poaching decimates elephant populations. But in a newly affluent China, owning ivory is seen by many as a sign of status. It’s described as “white gold”, both an object of desire and – increasingly – an investment vehicle.
“Millions of people who are getting into the middle class want to have a piece of ivory,” says Grace Ge Gabriel, the Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw). “The world does not have enough elephants to supply that ivory.”
As the commercial gateway to China, Hong Kong is the throbbing heart of the global ivory trade. The city’s ceaselessly busy ports are a major point of entry for ivory smuggled from Africa to Asia. Customs officials have had to step up their detection game, uncovering larger and larger amounts of contraband ivory in recent years. In 2011, authorities seized 3,396kg of ivory. In 2012 they seized 5,596kg. This year, between January and October alone, they seized 7,230kg. Much more doubtless goes undiscovered, hidden inside shipping containers.
Murkier and more contentious is the issue of legal ivory. In Hong Kong, shops such as Yue Hwa have government-issued licences to sell certain types of ivory. These include ivory products carved before a 1989 ban on international ivory trade, ivory from the tusks of extinct mammoths, and ivory bought from government stockpile sales in Southern Africa. Licensed ivory stores are rife in Kowloon and along the Hollywood Road arts and antiques district on Hong Kong island. A 2011 survey counted 33,526 ivory items on display in 62 outlets.
But regulating the legal ivory market is complex and difficult. Despite certificates of origin, it is difficult to know whether supposedly legal ivory is genuinely pre-1989 or not, leaving the industry open to abuses. “These legal markets provide cover for illegal ivory to be laundered,” Ms Gabriel says.
And although ivory bought in Hong Kong cannot legally exit the city without a permit, this is not routinely enforced when it comes to tourists from the rest of China, who have enlarged the market for Hong Kong ivory to its breaking point. “It’s commonly expected that ivory will be bought by people from the mainland and taken to the mainland,” says Steven Gallagher, an associate professor of law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “No one really seems to be concerned.” More....