Hong Kong’s ivory ban sparks fresh hope for endangered elephants

Along with China's ban last year, the Hong Kong government's decision to outlaw the sale of ivory has conservationists hopeful it will bring down the rate at which elephants are being poached in Africa. 

Bobby Yip/Reuters
Supporters of an ivory ban protest outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, China, on Jan. 31, 2018.

Smooth white bracelets, intricate carvings of women in flowing gowns, and majestic horses are among the countless items that are disappearing from shop windows in mainland China as the government implements an ivory trading ban for the world’s largest consumer of ivory.

And now Hong Kong, the largest ivory retail market, is preparing to do the same. Lawmakers voted Jan. 31 to ban the sale of ivory starting in 2021, and increase penalties for wildlife crimes. Both bans include exceptions for certain antiques and cultural relics.

Wildlife researchers say the ivory bans in China and Hong Kong are promising steps toward conserving elephant populations, as legal markets often function as a cover for illegal markets. By closing legal markets of ivory, legislators and conservationists hope to further restrict access to ivory and lower prices and demand for ivory products.

“Bans on ivory reduce the incentive to poach for elephants because there’s nowhere for the ivory to go,” says Elly Pepper, deputy director of the wildlife trade initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.

Banning ivory, along with wider efforts to crack down on the illegal ivory trade, is ultimately aimed at saving elephants whose numbers are threatened by high levels of poaching.

An estimated 30,000 elephants are killed each year for their tusks. Elephant poaching in Africa has been in decline for the past five years, according to a 2016 report by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), but elephants are still at risk of extinction. “[Poachers] are killing more elephants than can be born,” says Jan Vertefeuille, senior director of advocacy and wildlife conservation at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Washington. “It’s still a huge problem.”

Illegal poaching often finds an outlet in legal markets. Though the international commercial trade of ivory has been effectively banned since 1990 under CITES, domestic ivory markets have continued, regulated by national and local governments.

“[T]hat really is the history of the ivory trade,” says Peter Knights, chief executive officer of WildAid in San Francisco. “When there’s been legal ivory trade, it’s served as a cover for laundering of illegal ivory.”

By closing domestic ivory markets, legislators aim to drive down demand, lowering the incentive to poach elephants. China’s ban affected the ivory market even before it was fully implemented.

The price of raw ivory fell 65 percent during the transition to a ban, according to the Chinese state news agency Xinhua. Despite predictions that limiting the supply would increase the value of ivory, says Ms. Vertefeuille, “it did not send prices skyrocketing, it [had] the opposite effect – it depressed prices.”

The ban has also influenced consumer behavior in China, according to a recent survey by the WWF and TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network. Notified of China’s impending ban, 31 percent of potential ivory consumers responded that they would no longer buy ivory. “[T]hat’s pretty significant,” says Vertefeuille.

The next step in enforcing both China’s and Hong Kong’s bans is public education, says Mr. Knights, whose nonprofit group is working with the Chinese government to spread awareness of the newly implemented ban. “There are indications that there’s already been a major shift in demand, particularly in top cities like Shanghai and Beijing, where the campaigns are focused.” 

Ivory bans are just one piece of wider efforts to lower demand for ivory and eliminate the poaching of elephants. For example, in 2016 the Kenyan government lit the largest ivory burn in history, destroying 105 tons of elephant ivory.

The near-total ivory ban in the United States came into effect in 2016, and in August 2017 the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation hosted an ivory crush in New York City’s Central Park. Two tons of illegal ivory was destroyed.

Wildlife researchers hope other major ivory markets will join China and Hong Kong in ending the sale of ivory.

“Now, countries like Thailand and Vietnam and Myanmar and Laos – they need to do the same so that we’re drying up access to ivory wherever it might be,” says Vertefeuille. “And that’s going to create the tipping point for the elephant poaching numbers back in Africa.”

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