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With Historic Vote, Hong Kong Ivory Trade Losing Support

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.

The next political milestone is to ensure that the Chief Executive mentions escalating the fight against wildlife crime and the need for an ivory ban in his January 13 annual policy address (an event somewhat similar to the American State of the Union address). If this can be achieved, it would pave the way for kickstarting the legislative process.

Alas, in Hong Kong, this is a long and cumbersome process. The timeline could look something like this:

Bottom line, the process laid out above would take two to three years to complete before a vote in LegCo. It is difficult to estimate an outcome two to three years later, as many of the current players may or may not have have voted out of office, including Hong Kong's current elephant-friendly Chief Executive.

But we witnessed a telling moment last week that gives us hope. In a rare display of openness by the Hong Kong government, Hong Kong's Acting Secretary for the Environment, Christine Loh, attended a public elephant conservation event and spoke to reporters — something that Hong Kong officials rarely do prior to motion debates. Loh said:

I actually feel that Hong Kong is going through a change where we see wildlife protection as much more important, and Hong Kong is actually very successful in persuading people without actually passing laws, not to consume shark fins, for example. So I think now, in terms of ivory, this is an area that has received tremendous local and international concern. And we see that China and the United States have come to a broad understanding of coming to a near-ban for the commercial trade of ivory, even on the domestic basis.

So I think in Hong Kong we want to take all of these very seriously, and we are considering what should be our next step. […] We have said that we are open-minded to a domestic commercial trade ban, because right now we already have an international trade ban. So we are open-minded to thinking about further restrictions in Hong Kong itself.

Click here for a recap on LegCo's motion debate proceedings.