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WWF Study: Ivory Trade in Hong Kong Could be Banned Within Two Years, while Government Proposes a Closure by 2021

Just days after the Hong Kong government published its draft five-year timetable to end the domestic ivory trade, WWF today published a legal research report confirming that an ivory ban could be put in place within two years under current Hong Kong law.

Commissioned by WWF and conducted by Hong Kong barrister Tim Parker and international consultancy Global Rights Compliance LLP, the Feasibility Study on the Ban of Hong Kong’s Ivory Trade concludes that the government could within 6 months halt the practice of issuing new licenses to sell ivory and follow this with legislation to end the trade completely by 2018 – earlier than the government’s proposal to outlaw the trade by 2021

“WWF welcomes the government’s draft timetable but we believe that an ivory ban in Hong Kong could be legally enacted sooner,” said Gavin Edwards, Conservation Director at WWF Hong Kong. “WWF understands that the government’s ‘five year plan’ has been adjusted out of concern for ivory traders and legislatures and that a rushed legislative plan could risk backfiring, while our legal analysis shows that it can be completed within two years.”

Apart from the speed of the legislative process, WWF’s legal analysis is largely consistent with the government’s draft proposal and agrees with the key principle that the authorities do not need to compensate ivory traders for their remaining stocks – finding that the proposed ban does not infringe the “right to compensation for lawful deprivation of…property” as protected by Article 105 of the Basic Law of the Hong Kong SAR.

Traders who chose to speculate over the past 26 years ago – since the international ivory trade started to come under regulation in 1976 and was banned in 1990 – by buying up elephant ivory on the grounds that it was a good investment have no legal grounds to claim compensation. Worse, it may even create a perverse incentive to smuggle ivory into Hong Kong to try and ‘cash in’ on any compensation scheme, thus creating further challenges for Hong Kong customs authorities.

Back in 1990 when the ban on international ivory trade came into force, the Hong Kong government successfully re-trained hundreds of ivory carvers and workers. One of Hong Kong’s ex-ivory crafters “Uncle Lee”, explains that “there are barely any ivory crafters left in Hong Kong”. Mr Lee was a full-time ivory carver in the 1970s who exited the profession in the 1990s. The authorities should explore suitable assistance measures for the few remaining ivory carvers who might be affected by the proposed ban.

“The Hong Kong government has listened to the people and legislators of the city who both want the ivory trade banned, and we hope this legal analysis will encourage them to speed up the process,” said Cheryl Lo, Senior Wildlife Crime Officer at WWF Hong Kong. “We are also encouraged by the government’s plan to increase penalties in future for the illegal sale and trafficking of ivory, but with around 30,000 African elephants being poached each year for their tusks there is no time to lose.”

The publication of the proposed timetable follows the announcement by Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung in January to “take steps to ban totally the sale of ivory”. The decision followed the release of a major WWF report entitled The Hard Truth, which revealed fundamental weaknesses in the regulation of Hong Kong’s ivory market, as well as an ivory ban campaign that was backed by over 90,000 Hong Kongers and members of the Legislative Council.

The announcement also comes just a month after the US government issued new regulations to impose a near-complete ban on its domestic ivory trade. The Chinese government is also planning to announce a timetable before the end of 2016 to close its ivory market.