Ivory trading in Hong Kong will be banned by December 31, 2021, but traders will have a five-year grace period to liquidate their ivory stocks of 77 tonnes believed to be worth billions of dollars.
Conservationists welcomed the amended bill to be submitted to the Legislative Council in the first half next year, but suggested a ban could be enforced in two years. But local traders said the grace period was too short.
Stiffer penalties for ivory smuggling of up to 10 years in prison and a HK$10 million fine will also be implemented, up from two years' prison and a fine of HK$5 million at present.
Secretary for Environment Wong Kam-sing said yesterday five years is the quickest and most effective for traders to undergo transition or liquidate their ivory stocks, but the government has ruled out any compensation for traders. "The measures will send a very strong signal to the international community on Hong Kong's determination," said Wong.
The three-step legislative plan to amend the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance will begin with an immediate ban of elephant hunting trophies once the amended law is enacted, followed by prohibiting trade in ivory acquired before a 1975 convention regulating the trade in endangered species three months after that, and finally a complete ban on possession of commercial ivory by 2021.
The proposed legislation has been endorsed by the Chief Executive in Council.
Ivory imports and exports have been outlawed in Hong Kong since 1989 when international ivory trading was banned. Currently, domestic ivory sales are allowed. About 370 licensed traders can legally sell and use ivory from pre- 1989 private stocks of about 77 tonnes.
Licenses allowing possession of ivory last for five years, but the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department can revoke the licenses only under exceptional circumstances.
Antique ivory will be excluded from trading and possession beyond 2021 under the legislation, but the department does not have a clear definition.
The Chamber of Hong Kong and Kowloon Ivory, which has been consulted by the government over the legislation, insists the grace period should be further extended as its ivory stocks could lose value equivalent to billions of Hong Kong dollars after the ban.
"There is no way the government is not giving us any compensation," said chamber president So Chi-keung. "How are we supposed to sell all of our ivory products in a stagnant market? We are businessmen. What good can ivory do if it cannot be sold?"
But the World Wide Fund for Nature, which said Hong Kong has become the global hub for the illegal ivory trade, suggested that a ban could be enforced in two years.
"We urge legislators to follow through on the government's promise to end this brutal trade as soon as possible and impose heavier penalty on wildlife crime offenders," said WWF Hong Kong's director of conservation Gavin Edwards. "The ban on trade should happen as soon as possible."
Advocacy group WildAid said that with the mainland planning to implement a complete ban on ivory trade within two years, international traders may take advantage of the five-year grace period to liquidate their stocks in Hong Kong.
Campaigner Alex Hofford said: "We've got to watch out and be on our guard for a lot of illicit flows of ivory from China to Hong Kong after the China ban takes place. Hong Kong could still become a hotbed of ivory trade before 2021."
Hofford added the unclear definition of antique ivory could also "give way to laundering ivory from freshly killed elephants to the so-called antique market."
Ivory is allowed for use in traditional Chinese medicine, which is effective in treating childhood diseases, said Chinese Herbalists Association president Kwan Chi-yee.