Hong Kong voted to shut down ivory trade in the city on Wednesday. The ban will go into effect by 2021.
Lawmakers voted 49-4 to amend an existing law to outlaw ivory sales in the Chinese-ruled city, enacting a fine of 10 million Hong Kong dollars ($1.3 million U.S.), double the current amount, and increasing the prison term from two years to 10 years.
China officially banned ivory sales Dec. 31, 2017 and shut down carving shops and factories last March, but that ban didn't apply to Hong Kong.
A step forward
Hong Kong has been widely considered the world's biggest retail ivory market, according to the Associated Press, even though existing Hong Kong law followed regulations under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Under CITES, ivory trading was regulated in 1975 with a total ban on international sales going into effect in 1990. Activists have contended that many Hong Kong dealers exploited this loophole by selling newer ivory as if it were pre-CITES ivory, forging "pre-convention" certificates and selling the new ivory as antiques.
Under the new legislation, importing and re-exporting ivory from the city will be prohibited, regardless of when the ivory was collected.
The new law's implementation period is intended to give current ivory traders time to find new work.
It was suggested that the government buy the ivory stock from current traders, or at the very least compensate traders in some way.
"To expect ivory traders in their 60s to change industries is impractical," one lawmaker, Peter Shiu, said Wednesday, as reported by The New York Times. "Do you expect them to take online courses?"
This course of action was not adopted by lawmakers, with many pointing out that traders had plenty of time to find new lines of work since ivory trade had essentially been banned for three decades, and that they still have another three years to find new employment.
"Providing any form of compensation will signal that Hong Kong is buying ivory, which will likely cause a surge in poaching," said another lawmaker, Ted Hui.
In the lead up to the vote, Hong Kong lawmakers heard testimony about grisly ivory poaching scenes and faced protesters, many of them children and young adults. (Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)
While activists praised the decision, the slow implementation created concerns over a possible uptick in smuggling before the ban goes into effect.
"Today is a great day for elephants. Hong Kong has always been the 'heart of darkness' of the ivory trade with a 670-ton stockpile when international trade was banned in 1989," Alex Hofford of WildAid Hong Kong said in a statement.
Given that Hong Kong has been a been a hotbed for ivory smuggling, including a 7.2-ton haul intercepted last July, worries about an increase in smuggling and sales before 2021 are not unfounded.
China's ban has resulted in a 65 percent drop in raw ivory prices, according to the state media Xinhua, and an 80 percent decline in seizures of ivory entering the country. The country has launched a media campaign to help raise awareness of the ban, a step Hong Kong could also take.
Some 100 African elephants are killed a day to meet demand for ivory and meat.