Photograph by PAUL HILTON, EPA
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A pedestrian walks past an ivory shop in Hong Kong. This shop's owner says all his ivory products are from extinct mammoths. In one month alone, authorities seized hundreds of elephant tusks on their way to Hong Kong's black market.

Photograph by PAUL HILTON, EPA

Elephants Win as Hong Kong’s Leader Says It Will Ban Ivory Trade

Shutting down the world’s largest legal ivory market would be a conservation milestone.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, announced plans to ban the domestic ivory trade during his 2016 Policy Address. The annual speech lays out the year’s policy agenda.

In the middle of the two-hour monologue, between statements on electric vehicles and waste management, Leung said that the government “will kick-start legislative procedures as soon as possible to ban the import and export of elephant hunting trophies.”

And, he said, Hong Kong will explore other legislative measures to ensure an effective ban on the import and export of ivory and phase out the local ivory trade. In addition, Hong Kong will impose heavier penalties on smuggling and illegal trading of endangered species.

The milestone was welcomed. The South China Morning Post included it as one of three major surprises of the speech, yet momentum has been brewing for months.

The announcement came six weeks after the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s lawmaking body, debated a motion put forward by lawmaker Elizabeth Quat to ban the city’s domestic ivory trade. That motion passed unanimously, demonstrating agreement by lawmakers across Hong Kong's political divide.

The legislative support mirrored public opinion. A survey by the University of Hong Kong released in May found that 75 percent of Hong Kong’s citizens strongly supported a ban on the ivory trade.

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Around 100 protesters gathered in Hong Kong's main ivory selling district in March 2015 to urge the government to ban ivory.

It also showed the government that a ban would pass in the legislature.

“I think my successful motion debate on wildlife smuggling and banning ivory trade here really gave them the confidence to push ahead with future legislative efforts to bring our city's laws in line with the growing international movement to protect elephants, and other endangered species of wildlife,” Quat told National Geographic.

While that debate was non-binding, Hong Kong’s Acting Secretary for the Environment, Christine Loh, noted that “we see this as very important within the government to get the mood of the political consensus in the Legislative Council.”

The joint agreement last September by U.S. President Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping to stop the domestic ivory trade also likely spurred Hong Kong’s policy statement.

Leung is known to be pro-China, at times in conflict with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, so it makes sense that he would follow President Xi’s moves to ban the ivory trade with something similar. Because much of Hong Kong’s ivory is smuggled to the mainland, continuation of Hong Kong’s trade would undermine China’s effort.

In October last year, undercover video by independent investigators provided to the wildlife welfare nonprofits WildAid and WWF-Hong Kong, together with several reports, revealed that Hong Kong’s traders routinely replenished their legally held private stocks with illegal ivory.

“Hong Kong can’t not ban ivory if the U.S. and China are going to,” says WildAid campaigner Alex Hofford. “If Hong Kong doesn’t shut the door, then it’s all for nothing.”

Wildlife activists welcomed the announcement. Yet they also wanted to ensure that the words were followed by action.

"I am delighted by Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung's announcement,” Quat said, “but urge the government to execute this commitment without delay.”

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Ivory carvings are on display in a shop in Hong Kong, where selling ivory domestically is legal. The international ivory trade has been banned since 1989.

"We are very excited,” Hofford said, but Leung “must follow up his words with immediate meaningful action.”

WildAid is urging Leung to set a firm timeline for banning the ivory trade.

Implementing a complete domestic ivory ban might take years. According to Hofford, it appears likely that in the initial phase Hong Kong will tighten existing penalties and bann the import of hunting trophies. Stricter penalties would, in effect, make ivory smuggling a serious crime, instead of the “petty” offense it is now. More difficult aspects of a ban—such as eliminating private stocks—would likely come later.

At a press briefing held after the announcement, Leung said, “We will take steps to ban totally the sale of ivory in Hong Kong. It will be a total ban. As to the matter of timing, we will do it expeditiously, as quickly as we can, but this will, as you probably appreciate, require legislative amendments and that will be a matter for the Legislative Council.”

“The political will is there,” Hofford says. “They just need to find a way of doing it.”

And that’s a win for this iconic species.

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