By Bryan Harris
Campaigner Quat says illegal trade is harming China's relations with the African continent
The illicit ivory trade between Africa and China has become a bane on relations with the continent and needs to be tackled, according to a prominent pro-Beijing lawmaker who is pushing for a total ban on the trade on the mainland.
Legislative Council member Elizabeth Quat said a ban would be easier to implement on the mainland than in Hong Kong, which has an established ivory industry with hundreds of licensed dealers.
"The trade is affecting the Sino-African relationship and China's image in Africa," said Quat, who spent two weeks in Kenya last year investigating the issue.
"People there can't imagine what the ivory is used for. They hear Chinese people are buying the ivory, so they feel depressed and angry. They don't understand why people want ivory."
The plight of the African elephant is now so dire that experts predict the mammal's extinction in the next decade if poaching continues unabated.
China is considered the world's largest consumer market for ivory, with the precious "white gold" viewed by many as a status symbol.
Quat, a legislator from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said she was lobbying party colleagues to include a proposal to outlaw the ivory trade in China at an upcoming session of the National People's Congress in Beijing.
Quat said there had been a lot of support, including from Maria Tam Wai-chu, Hong Kong's deputy to the mainland legislative body.
"A ban is an important message that shows the Chinese government is very keen on protecting animals and the Sino-African relationship," she added.
In 2013, 447 individuals in Hong Kong were licensed to sell 117 tonnes of ivory obtained before an international ivory ban in 1989 came into force in the city a year later. The government did not have figures available for last year.
However, conservationists and campaigners, including Quat, have expressed concern that the size of the Hong Kong stockpile has not dropped significantly over recent years, while the number of licence-holders has actually increased.
"If the government can't figure out why [this is happening\, it's a problem," said Quat. "Our guess is these licensed holders are mixing illegal ivory with legal ivory and selling it to tourists."
The shops issue a receipt saying the product is mammoth - not elephant - ivory, so it can be smuggled out of the city, she added.