Elephants are widely loved, but nobody can deny that they are in serious trouble. The US-based environmental organisation WildAid estimates that more than 30,000 elephants are killed every year in Africa for their tusks. The ivory is often carved into ornaments and jewellery, which are sold mostly in Asia. The mainland is the biggest market for such products.
Sunday is World Elephant Day, so Young Post talked to Cheryl Lo, Manager of Wildlife Crime for WWF Hong Kong, to find out more about the problem.
“A lot of people would not take the risk if [trading and buying ivory] is illegal or if the penalty is high enough,” said Lo. “[This] could really send a strong message to traffickers that the risk is high if you use Hong Kong as a route for trafficking, and it’s also a strong message to people that buying ivory is not a status symbol but a crime.”
Despite an international ban on trade since 1989, a loophole allows the pre-ban ivory to be bought and sold legally in some places, including Hong Kong and the mainland. As a result, traffickers are passing off ivory from recently killed elephants as that from animals that were killed before 1989, or as ancient mammoth ivory (which looks similar to elephant ivory).
If the current rate of poaching continues, the African elephant may be extinct within the next 10 years. Sadly, being a major trading hub close to the mainland and other places that buy ivory, Hong Kong has played a big role in the destruction of this magnificent species.
Between 2000 and 2013, 33 tonnes of illegal ivory were seized in the city. Since, according to a 2015 WWF report, only one in 10 illegal wildlife shipments is detected by customs, this is only a tiny percentage of all the ivory that passed through Hong Kong during that time.
Hong Kong also has its own ivory trade, catering largely to wealthy mainlanders. Historically, attempts to combat the ivory trade here have had a limited success, with the fines and prison sentences not being stringent enough to discourage smugglers.
But the city has made some significant progress in recent months. Earlier this year, the Hong Kong government voted to phase out the local ivory trade by 2021 and increase the severity of punishments to a HK$10,000 fine and 10 years in prison. Already, all imports of ivory from elephants killed before 1975 or from trophy hunting have been banned. It is hoped that this new law, along with similar moves by the mainland aimed at shutting down its ivory market, will encourage other Asian countries to follow suit.
There is, however, a moral issue that has often been overlooked. How can you justify telling poor African nations not to sell ivory when the money they gain from it could help to lift themselves out of poverty? But Lo, who spent a year working in Africa, believes the people there would stand to gain more from “live” elephants than from ivory.
“The elephants could support the local communities through eco-tourismm, and that is an area that is expanding in a lot of African countries,” she says. Eco-tourism brings many benefits, with the money being used, for example, to increase security in parks and villages, and provide schooling to children. “With poaching, an area becomes so insecure that [tourists] don’t visit it and local communities suffer,” she adds.
The last ivory shops in Hong Kong are set to close in 2021. In the meantime, Lo encourages young people with a passion for elephants to spread the word about their plight. “Youngsters can keep up the momentum in stamping out the ivory trade. Educate people. If [you] know anyone who is thinking [of buying ivory], tell them to pay extra attention to the products they are buying. Helping to raise awareness about the issue is a big help for elephant conservation.”'