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‘Ivory laundry of the world’: Traders in Hong Kong offer poached ivory for sale

WildAid and WWF-Hong Kong obtained this video, shot by independent investigators. (Video: WildAid and WWF-Hong Kong)

In Hong Kong, licensed ivory shops legally sell anything from elephant tusks costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to necklaces, bangles and figurines made of the same material for thousands or hundreds of dollars.

But they are supposed to only use ivory obtained before a global ban enacted in 1989. It is also illegal to take ivory out of Hong Kong.

This video filmed by independent investigators for WildAid and WWF, and supplied to The Washington Post, shows traders boasting they could easily replenish their pre-1989 stock with newly poached ivory.

“When it was outlawed in 1989, we registered our stocks with the Hong Kong government — all materials were registered, but the record was not in detail,” the retailer said to an investigator posing as an ivory buyer.

“They only record the weight of my raw materials and finished products. So I can simply exchange with anything. After I sell an item, I can use illegal ivory to make another item to top up my stock again. The government officials have no idea on how to regulate this.”

The Washington Post’s own investigation also found ivory freely on sale in Hong Kong to mainland Chinese tourists, with some traders even offering advice on how to smuggle it into China.

[Read: China to ban ivory trade “within a year or so,” as pressure mounts on Hong Kong]

In our main story — linked above — Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid in San Francisco, describes Hong Kong as “the ivory laundry of the world.” With the United States and China pledging to halt the commercial sale of ivory, he says the “moral imperative” has shifted to Hong Kong to also act decisively.

But Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) seems reluctant or unwilling to act against the ivory trade, a resistance to sustained global pressure that Alex Hofford, a campaigner for WildAid in Hong Kong, calls “incomprehensible.”

"Officers from Hong Kong's AFCD interface with the city's wildlife traders on a daily basis. They have formal and informal relationships with the ivory traders that go back decades, and have an almost instinctual mistrust of wildlife conservation NGOs,” he said. “We know from our sources that the Hong Kong ivory traders have been busy lobbying the government hard behind closed doors. Perhaps the traders have had some degree of success.”

In his ivory carving workshop, Daniel Chan Chun-bo, a senior official in the Hong Kong and Kowloon Ivory Manufacturers Association, sits among carved tusks and cupboards full of figurines. In a recent interview, he said his father had also been an ivory carver, moving to Hong Kong from southern China shortly after the Communist takeover in 1949. These days, he said, his workers, who sat in the back of his premises, mainly carved mammoth tusks, which is legal, although he said he still had some pre-1989 ivory.

Chan blamed the United States for driving up the price of ivory by banning the trade in 1989 and therefore stimulating a parallel illegal trade.

Conservationists want to tighten restrictions to outlaw trade in pre-1989 ivory, but Chan argued that such a ban would lead to the extinction of Africa’s elephants, because then they would just be seen as pests that eat crops and kill people.

“Now, the elephants still have tusks, so they are valuable,” he said. “If the ivory can’t be traded, elephants would all be killed, because they would be useless and not valuable any more.”

It is an old argument that ignores the massive tourism income elephants generate in Africa, experts say, and the fact that poached elephants are stolen, with no benefit to anyone but the criminals.

Catherine Novelli, U.S. undersecretary for economic growth, energy, and the environment in the State Department, cited a study that estimates that an elephant is worth around $1.6 million over its lifetime — in tourism income flowing to local economies, travel companies and airlines — but that the raw value of a dead elephant’s tusks is only around $21,000.

“It is about elephants, it is about people, about tourism, it is about organized crime that has started to use these things as currency,” she said in a telephone interview.