Hong Kong Safeguards its Ivory Traders

Recent revelations of serious corruption at the highest levels in Hong Kong are increasing scrutiny of decisions taken by the bureaucracy that favor certain business interests.

In the past, such decisions have been attributed to a belief ingrained in the civil service and fortified by the prestige of the city’s tycoons that Hong Kong was all about business. Social concerns should not stand in its way. But the public is now looking more closely at specific examples of favoritism

If the supposed anti-corruption watchdog, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) had crime prevention as its goal it would take action to investigate curious government decisions rather than, as is the case, sit back and wait for a whistle-blower to arrive with documented evidence.

It would for example want to know why the government deems the names of those licensed to deal in ivory to be a private and confidential matter, a decision made by the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department in the face of demands for transparency in implementation of controls on trade in endangered species.

Hong Kong has long been notorious as a center for smuggled ivory. Alex Hofford, a wildlife campaigner and founder of Hong Kong for Elephants, wrote in National Geographic in September that blame for the elephant poaching crisis of the 1980s, which resulted in the global ivory ban of 1989, “can be laid squarely at the feet of the Hong Kong ivory traders.”

The ivory trade is an enormous scandal. Although they numbered 3 to 5 million in the last century, African populations have been severely reduced by hunting. In the 1980s, it was estimated that 100,000 were killed each year. Growing demand for ivory, particularly in newly rich parts of Asia and especially in China, has reduced some herds by 80 percent.

Tourists who flood the city from China often smuggle ivory products back home, daring fines and penalties that are laughably low.

Hofford suggested that the city’s ivory traders, who have had more than 25 years to clear out their pre-1989 stocks, are not only still holding onto them but may be “topping up their existing stocks of pre-1989 convention ivory with illegally smuggled ivory fresh off the boat from Mombasa.”

In mid-2014, government authorities destroyed 11 tonnes of illegally seized vory, burning it in chemical incinerators. It still has an additional portion to destroy. The second legal stockpile is in the hands of the trade. At the end of 2013 it was 117.1 tonnes. That figure is a consolidated or combined figure of the total amount that the 447 ivory licensees all report once a year . Hofford asked why this stockpile wasn’t going down

The idea that the dealers’ identity is a matter of privacy immediately raises a red flag. Was a bureaucrat improperly influenced by the vested interests in this business to claim it is not a matter of public interest? Any member of the public wanting to buy or sell these enormously valuable, restricted items would want to know if the dealer or carver was licensed and that the ivory was not in breach of international regulations. Indeed, a private individual might be prosecuted for not conducting due diligence when acquiring a piece of ivory. Ignorance of the law, as has been proclaimed for hundreds of years, is no excuse.

The decision to keep the names of the dealers secret raises the question whether the Department is in the pocket of the interests of the traders long suspected of ignoring the regulations. The decision also strengthens the suspicions, already widely held by those responsible for or interested in wildlife preservation, that, whatever their motive, Hong Kong authorities decline to enforce the codes of conduct relating to trade in endangered species and protecting those who indulge in the trade, which is quite lucrative.

Despite the 25-year-old ban on the international ivory trade, Hong Kong has substantial loopholes in its system which enable the trade to carry on. No less than 447 people have licenses to own or deal in ivory and other protected species. Some licensees are not traders but those that are can still trade any ivory acquired before the restrictions came into force, and any subsequently acquired from official sales by African governments.

These restrictions are in effect meaningless so Hong Kong remains a major center for dealing. Although the territory has this massive stock of seized ivory, as Hofford points out, it isn’t going down, it is going up. It is unconscionable that despite a strong campaign by schoolchildren, the 29.6 tonnes burnt so far is a small fraction of what the authorities hold. That in itself raises questions why.

The excuse that non-commercial owners need their privacy protected is simply a cover-up of illegal activities of the commercial sector. The department is in practice abetting illegal activity by denying the public a right to know who is licensed. The names of those licensed as doctors, lawyers, dentists and accountants are published, along with those licensed to sell restricted drugs and chemicals. The special treatment of the dubious ivory trade shows a dark side of Hong Kong’s administration.