Lawmakers in Hong Kong voted to ban all ivory sales in the territory on Wednesday, a move environmentalists hailed as a definitive measure to help curb elephant poaching.
The Legislative Council of Hong Kong voted 49-4 to pass the new legislation, which will end a 150-year trade in the animal product and go into effect in 2021, following a multiyear grace period. When instituted, all trade in ivory will be banned, closing loopholes that previously allowed the sale of antique ivory obtained before the 1970s.
“Today is a great day for elephants,” Alex Hofford, the Hong Kong campaigner for the group WildAid, said in a statement. “Hong Kong has always been the ‘heart of darkness’ of the ivory trade.”
Hong Kong, an autonomous special administrative region of China, has long abided by the terms of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, which banned the international trade of ivory in 1990. Hunting trophies and antique ivory are excluded from the terms of the convention, unless countries impose their own stricter laws.
Environmentalists have long warned, however, that countries that allow trade in “pre-convention” ivory effectively aid poaching, as illegal ivory is often passed off as antique. And as markets closed around the world, places like Hong Kong have become major hubs for products that are illicit elsewhere. Reuters notes that more than 90 percent of people who buy ivory in Hong Kong are from mainland China.
Some activists have questioned why Hong Kong allowed such a long grace period for ivory traders to phase out their businesses.
“Why not stop trade at once like China did?” Philip Muruthi, the chief scientist for the African Wildlife Foundation, asked in a statement. “This kind of declaration usually leads to ‘stockpiling’ whereby traders try to get in as much illegal ivory as possible to boost their stocks, so that they can make a killing in the name of legal offloading prior to the ban deadline. The advantage of an instant ban is that it renders the product instantly valueless.”
China, one of the world’s largest ivory markets, officially shut down its own domestic trade in the product late last year. At the time, WildAid called the move the “greatest single step toward reducing elephant poaching.”
Since the country first announced it would impose an all-encompassing ban in 2015, China has seen an 80 percent drop in illegal ivory seizures at the border. The move also prompted legal ivory prices to plummet by more than 65 percent in Hong Kong over the past two years, WildAid noted.
The policies represent a massive step forward in the fight against elephant poaching across Africa and in parts of Asia, where the animals are slaughtered for their tusks. Environmentalists estimate more than 33,000 elephants are killed every year to help feed the demand for ivory, which is seen as a status symbol in some Asian countries.
Countries including Thailand and Vietnam are now the largest remaining markets for the ivory trade, and officials are calling on more sweeping bans to be instituted around the globe.
“This is a huge tribute to the leadership of lawmakers and a fantastic effort by civil society groups to push for action on this issue,” Erik Solheim, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said in a statement. “We now need to see all other countries close loopholes that still allow the illegal trade of ivory to continue.”