HONG KONG —It could be the beginning of the end for the illicit trade in ivory.
Last month, on a state visit to Washington, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to stop the commercial trade in ivory in his country but gave few details about the timing and extent of such a move.
Now, a senior U.S. government official says that the Chinese ban could be in place within a year or so, with very narrow exceptions, describing it as a “huge” deal.
Such a move, conservationists say, would be a major step toward ending the poaching crisis that is decimating Africa’s elephant herds.
“This commitment goes all the way up to President Xi,” Catherine Novelli, U.S. undersecretary for economic growth, energy and the environment in the State Department, said in a telephone interview. “They have made it very clear this is what they want to do.”
But even as optimism mounts, the spotlight is turning to Hong Kong, a former British enclave that has long been a center of the global trade in wildlife trafficking.
There, authorities’ reluctance to clamp down on legal ivory traders has allowed a much larger illegal trade to flourish, conservationists say, and has established the territory as a key transit point in the smuggling of ivory from Africa into China.
“Hong Kong has always been the ivory laundry of the world,” said Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid in San Francisco. “The moral imperative has shifted from China and the U.S., who are in a position to say they are going to close the ivory trade down, to Hong Kong to do the same.”
First, the good news.
The United States and China have agreed to enact “nearly complete bans” on ivory import and export, “and to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.”
China is by far the biggest ivory market in the world, with a flourishing domestic ivory carving and trading industry that is supposed to use only old stockpiles but actually provides cover for the laundering of huge quantities of newly poached ivory.
Ivory remains a status symbol in China, but outlawing the domestic trade would go a long way toward making it as unfashionable there as it is in the West.
Wildlife groups said the U.S.-China accord offers real hope for Africa’s elephants, which are being slaughtered in the tens of thousands every year. Knights called it a “historic” step.
In the past, China had argued that ivory carving was part of its cultural heritage, but it has gradually come to realize that its role in the poaching industry was damaging its global reputation, particularly in Africa.
Novelli said she expects that China will ban its domestic ivory trade “sometime within the next year or so,” with “extremely narrow” exceptions — perhaps for items such as musical instruments or certain antiques.
Authorities there are reviewing what regulations must be amended and discussing with experts how to buy back ivory stockpiles, she said.
Time is of the essence.
Africa’s elephant herds have dwindled from about 1.2 million 35 years ago to between 400,000 and 500,000 now. Central African forest elephants could be extinct within the next decade if current trends continue.
Attention is swinging toward Hong Kong. In a September report, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said the city has the largest retail ivory market in the world, while an investigation by Save the Elephants found that more than 90 percent of the ivory objects here are bought by tourists from mainland China.
Hong Kong allows ivory stockpiled before a 1989 global ban to be sold freely, but under international regulations, it must not be taken out of the territory. Traders must register the weight of their stockpiles, but critics say there is no regulation on sales.
Video filmed by independent investigators for WildAid and WWF, and supplied to The Washington Post, shows traders boasting that they could easily replenish their pre-1989 stock with newly poached ivory.
Official figures show barely any reduction in ivory stockpiles in Hong Kong for several years, despite a surge in tourism from China.
Hong Kong’s customs seized nearly nine tons of ivory in 2013 — a record — and last year the government began publicly destroying tons of seized ivory from its stockpile as a signal of its commitment to ending the trade.
But wildlife experts say Hong Kong has been unwilling to move against the retail traders whose industry provides a cover for smuggling, while penalties for smuggling are low. Only a total ban on the ivory trade, as China has promised, would give police the power they need to stem smuggling, they argue.
Christine Loh, Hong Kong’s undersecretary for the environment, said her government is moving to “plug holes” in the system but argued that traders have a “legitimate interest” in the ivory business and would have to be compensated for their stockpiles, a potentially costly process.
Knights argues that traders have had 26 years to get rid of their old stockpiles, have been constantly replenishing them with poached ivory and could simply be given six more months to clear their shelves, without compensation.
After a series of successful public education campaigns by civic groups, public opinion in Hong Kong supports a ban on ivory trading.
So why is the Hong Kong government so reluctant to act?
It is either corruption or bureaucratic inertia, Knights says: “The bureaucrats’ bottom line — don’t ever admit to a problem, or you might have to do something about it, and if you do that, you might get something wrong and get blamed.”
Nevertheless, Loh said Hong Kong will collaborate with Chinese authorities. Although the autonomous territory has its own legislative process, a ban on the ivory trade in China would make it “untenable” for Hong Kong not to also make its laws stricter, she said.
The administration intends to restrict the import of ivory by hunters to “two elephant trophies per year per hunter,” Novelli said, and only from countries where it determines that income from hunting “contributes to the survival of the species.” That won’t be enough to satisfy everyone, given the outcry that followed the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe by a Minnesota dentist, or this month’s shooting of one of Africa’s biggest elephants by a German hunter.
But Novelli said that “as long as it is severely regulated and under tight conditions, we did not think we should do a complete ban” on trophy hunting.
Xu Jing contributed to this report.