HONG KONG (13 January 2016) —In his Annual Policy Address, Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced that the government will legislate a ban on local elephant ivory sales, joining mainland China and the United States in a global effort to end Africa’s elephant poaching crisis that has claimed up to 33,000 elephants a year.
Responding to several hidden camera investigations into the city's ivory trade released last fall, Hong Kong environment officials had previously said they are “open-minded” to the possibility of ending legal ivory sales reversing their previous position that the trade was “strictly regulated.”
Leung also announced that maximum penalties for endangered species trafficking would be sharply increased to seven years imprisonment, compared with the current two years under Hong Kong's Endangered Species Ordinance.
“History has shown that legal ivory sales only serve to provide a cover for illegal trade, which fuels the rampant poaching we see across Africa. Hong Kong has always been the epicenter of that trade, so we congratulate CY Leung and the government for this historic step. Coupled with a 50% drop in ivory prices in China over the last 18 months, the end of the crisis may be in sight,” said WildAid CEO Peter Knights.
In recent years, few species have faced a greater threat from poaching and the illegal wildlife trade than the magnificent rhino. After wild populations in Africa enjoyed a few years of relative safety, the number of animals brutally murdered for their horns has increased dramatically lately. In 2014, more than 1200 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone. First estimates for 2015 don’t look much better.
Most of this spike in wildlife crime is driven by increased consumer demand in China and Vietnam, where rhino horn is used primarily as a remedy for all sorts of ailments, even though it has long been shown that it doesn’t have any medicinal properties whatsoever. It’s a sad story of superstition and misinformation on one end of the chain that is responsible for mass slaughter and suffering on the other.
I’ve long argued that the illegal wildlife trade must be addressed along the entire supply chain. Strengthening the capabilities of those brave rangers fighting what looks like a losing battle in many of Africa’s national parks is part of the solution, and it has to go hand in hand with better governance, greater accountability, and more effective law enforcement. Yet, supply reduction can only work when we tackle demand at the same time. In other words: only when the buying stops, the killing can, too.
This is one of the reasons I went to visit Vietnam in September last year and met with local business leaders and other stakeholders. Our conversations about wildlife and the role of Vietnamese business in ending this madness were productive and fruitful. Over dinner, several dozen business leaders pledged to start a movement to end the use of rhino horn once and for all.
In a significant move to save one of the world’s most-treasured marine animals, Peru has approved strong regulations to protect the giant oceanic manta ray, a species particularly vulnerable to fishing activity.
Manta ray populations are under serious threat worldwide from fisheries targeting mantas for their gills and meat, and from accidental entanglement in nets and fishing line. Peru has one of the largest remaining populations of giant oceanic manta rays. Last spring, a giant oceanic manta caught in a gill net by a fisherman in Peru made international headlines, sparking calls to strengthen protections for mantas, whose gill plates are often sold in some Asian markets for use in a “health tonic.”
With the support of contributors like you, 2015 has been a banner year for WildAid as we work together to save elephants, rhinos, sharks and other magnificent animals from the illegal wildlife trade.
Among our proudest accomplishments: WildAid played an influential role in shifting attitudes and awareness about elephants in China, resulting in the September 2015 announcement of the United States’ and China’s decision to close their ivory markets – two of the world’s largest. Hong Kong, long an international hub for smuggled ivory and poorly regulated trade, has also signaled a change by stating they are now considering banning ivory sales.
Building on this momentum, we must finally turn things around for elephants in 2016. With an estimated 33,000 elephants dying in Africa each year, the end of the ivory trade cannot come soon enough.
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Last week, the status quo in Hong Kong was disrupted.
On Thursday, December 3, lawmakers gathered from across the political spectrum in Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo) to unanimously pass a motion calling on the Hong Kong government to strengthen the fight against wildlife crime and to legislate for a commercial ban on ivory trading. Although non-binding, the historic motion was passed by 37 out of 38 legislators present, with no 'No' votes or abstentions. It marked a rare display of unity in Hong Kong's polarized, post-Occupy/Umbrella movement political landscape.
Over the past few weeks, global public opinion has shifted rapidly towards the realization that ivory bans are desperately needed if the world's last remaining elephants are to be saved from extinction. The lawmakers' vote comes just a matter of weeks after the high-level announcement made at The White House by Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama to "take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory." Most recently, Pope Francis also condemned ivory trafficking during his visit to Kenya.
So what does this milestone actually mean for Hong Kong? Unfortunately, the motion debate was not a bill, and as mentioned, it also was non-binding. What it does do is back the Hong Kong government into a corner by making it extremely difficult for the government to further delay; Hong Kong's Chief Executive CY Leung and officials at the government's Environment Bureau must act now.