Hong Kong ivory ban could hurt Africa's elephants before it helps them

Hong Kong’s approval of a ban on ivory sales could stem ivory trade in Asia, but acquiescing to traders’ demands for compensation could spur more elephant poaching in Africa.          

Kin Cheung/AP
Manager of Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Erik Mararv (r.), and former Wildlife Crime Investigator with the Zambian Wildlife Authority Investigations and Intelligence Unit Josias Mungabwa hold placards during a press conference in Hong Kong, Tuesday, June 6, 2017. Park rangers in Africa are encouraging lawmakers to approve a ban on ivory in the Chinese territory and advising them to structure the ban so as not to fuel more poaching in Africa.

African park rangers urged Hong Kong lawmakers to approve a ban on ivory sales but warned that giving in to traders' demands for compensation would fuel more elephant poaching.

Lawmakers and officials heard public submissions from the rangers and other groups Tuesday on the government's long-awaited proposal to prohibit all local ivory trading by 2021.

The proposal is expected to pass later this year but faces resistance from the city's licensed dealers and traders, who are permitted to sell only ivory acquired before a 1990 ban on international trading.

They want millions of dollars in return for giving up their stockpile, but the rangers say poachers will see the compensation as an incentive to keep on slaughtering elephants for their tusks.

"If we compensate for ivory as the trade goes down, there will be an upsurge of poaching in Africa because the poachers will see it as if the Hong Kong government is actually buying up ivory," said Erik Mararv, manager of Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, told reporters ahead of the consultation.

Josias Mungabwa, a former investigator with the Zambian Wildlife Authority, said ivory trading fuels insurgencies fighting legitimate governments in Africa because syndicates use proceeds from ivory sales to buy weapons.

"The closure of markets in Asia will bring sanity to a lot of areas where poaching is taking place and imposing much higher sentences on the would-be offenders will also help us in Africa," Mr. Mungabwa told the panel.

Other experts and wildlife activists giving testimony said compensation should be ruled out because ivory traders and carvers, who've already had 27 years to sell off their legal stockpile estimated at 70 tons, are getting another five years' grace period.

Ivory workers weighed in with their objections to the ban.

"What does this illegal ivory poaching situation have to do with our stockpile, our hard-earned money?" said carver Mong Wai-hung, who said he wants to be able to pass on his ivory to his children so they can sell it and keep the business going.

Authorities in mainland China – a major source of ivory demand – are moving much more swiftly than Hong Kong, and Beijing plans to ban local sales by the end of this year. But wildlife activists worry that the four-year gap will encourage more smugglers to use Hong Kong's legal stockpile to launder their illegal ivory.

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