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Hong Kong: World’s Ivory Sales Capital

Hong Kong's ivory market is booming thanks to an influx of tourists seeking luxury items — and that's impeding international efforts to end Africa’s elephant poaching crisis, according to a new report released Wednesday by Save the Elephants.

A survey of 72 Hong Kong retail outlets found nearly 31,000 ivory items displayed for sale, with jewelry the most popular item followed by figurines. Vendors estimated that 90% of customers were tourists from mainland China. 

“No other city surveyed has so many pieces of ivory on sale as Hong Kong,” report co-author Esmond Martin said in a statement. “With higher taxes on the mainland, Hong Kong has become a cheaper place to buy ivory. With 40 million people crossing the border between the territories every year and controls lax, there’s little chance of their getting caught.”

Licensed vendors can legally sell ivory products obtained prior to 1990 when an international ban on ivory imports went into effect. But the city's licensing system has been roundly condemned as ineffective, allowing for the sale of illegal ivory from recently poached elephants.  

According to official government figures, Hong Kong’s licensees held a total of about 117 tons of ivory in 2013 — a figure that had remained virtually unchanged since 2010. Yet during roughly the same time period, mainland Chinese tourism to Hong Kong more than doubled.

“A mass slaughtering of African elephants is underway, yet the Hong Kong government is turning a blind eye,” WildAid Hong Kong campaigner Alex Hofford said. “For 25 years since the international ban, Hong Kong's ivory traders appear to have been laundering poached ivory from illegally killed elephants into their stocks.”

According to the report, mainland Chinese tourists smuggle much of the purchased ivory through personal luggage. Hong Kong authorities inspect only a small percentage of suitcases, due in part to a shortage of inspectors and an emphasis on checking for other illegal goods.

Save the Elephants also investigated the growing trade in mammoth ivory, which is routinely used as a cover for selling elephant ivory items, especially trinkets.

The Hong Kong public overwhelmingly supports a comprehensive ban on elephant ivory sales, according to a survey by the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Programme released in May and commissioned by WildAid. But only 34% knew that African elephants could become extinct in the wild within our lifetime if current poaching rates continue.

WildAid, African Wildlife Foundation and Save the Elephants are conducting a major public awareness campaign in mainland China and Hong Kong to reduce the demand and end the illegal trade in ivory. The campaign uses public service announcements, billboards and subway ads featuring some of China’s biggest celebrities, including former NBA superstar Yao Ming, action hero Jackie Chan and top Chinese actress Li Bingbing, as well as The Duke of Cambridge (Prince William), David Beckham and others.

STE/WWF press conference in Hong Kong, July 16 (Alex Hofford)
Representatives of Save the Elephants and World Wildlife Fund - Hong Kong share findings of the new report (Alex Hofford/WildAid)