One of the recent reports on the illegal trade in ivory has implicated Hong Kong as a smuggling node into China. The claim is that Hong Kong is failing to impact the illegal trade, and this is contributing to the demise of elephant populations in Africa.
The level of retail trade is indicated by the number of items available for sale. Hong Kong has long had a domestic trade in ivory, and a large stock of ivory items. It used to be a major manufacturing hub for carvings when the international trade in ivory was legal. The number of items detected- approximately 30,000- makes it the largest (visible) retail market we know of. There’s not a lot of difference- nothing statistically significant- between current numbers and those in the past. And that is despite conservation “victories”, such as forcing CNAC to abandon selling elephant ivory carvings in Hong Kong.
The other notable feature of these items is they are almost entirely small items- bangles, bracelets, trinkets. In short, items that are typically less than 50g. Many of them were likely made in the past, rather than from current imports of illegal raw ivory. Many of the items are alleged to be smuggled back to China, illegally, in the large flow of people moving back and forth. This in itself is not surprising. The ability to detect small items of ivory in the sheer mass of people that cross that border daily, is an immense challenge.
Nonetheless, I don’t buy that this is the serious threat it is being made out to be. 30,000 items sounds like a lot, but if we assume that the average weight is say 50g (as a reasonable extrapolation of the mass of small items), then that’s about 1.5 tons of ivory. A large chunk of which, would certainly come from existing stocks of old carvings rather than being recently made. Some of this will be bought by visitors from mainland China. And presumably smuggled back. The scale of the trade is tricky to deduce, but even if all the ivory in Hong Kong was being smuggled back, then that’s not really a lot of ivory. If we think 35,000 elephants a year are being poached, then at 1.9 tusks per elephant and an average weight of 5kg, then that’s 332-333 tons of raw ivory per annum. That’s not adding up to 1.5 tons of bracelets, chopsticks and other trinkets.
So, in terms of enforcement payoff, is it better to be investing heavily in border protection with China, so the incidence of detecting 30g bracelets carved 20 years ago goes up? Or is it better to invest in the intelligence-led enforcement activity- and international cooperation- that catches 100s of kg of raw ivory in a single bust? I fear that narrative that the problem is ‘the demand for carvings in China’, is propelling people down some very sub-optimal pathways. We do far more damage to the bad guys with these big busts, then throwing resources after a trade that is really, not as significant as people think.