The Hong Kong government dealt a significant blow to the international ivory market this week when it announced plans to ban trade in ivory and other elephant hunting trophies.
The new policy was announced by Leung Chun-Ying, Hong Kong's chief executive and says the government will act "as soon as possible" to pass legislation to ban the import and export of the goods, as well as increase penalties against smugglers and increase law enforcement efforts.
Andrew Harmon, director of communications at WildAid, a San Francisco-based conservation group, said the maximum penalty for ivory trafficking could increased from two years to seven years under Hong Kong's Endangered Species Ordinance.
"The announcement is a stunning reversal from previous positions from the government," he said.
Hong Kong had long maintained, Harmon explained, that the ivory trade was carefully regulated.
"What we need is a timeline moving forward," he said. "And we need more specifics on how this plan can be implemented."
The announcement comes as parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) meet in Geneva. Addressing rampant elephant poaching in Africa and illegal trade in ivory and other trophies is high on their agenda.
Hong Kong is the city with the largest market for ivory in the world, according to a 2015 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report, and is a significant way station for products bound for mainland China.
In October, Hong Kong's Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department told the South China Morning Post that it was "open-minded" to a ban on trade in ivory. And, more recently, Hong Kong's Legislative Council unanimously passed a non-binding motion to ban the domestic ivory trade, meaning binding legislation is likely to pass.
Trade in African elephant ivory was banned by CITES in 1990. But Hong Kong, like other jurisdictions, grandfathered in whatever stockpiles of ivory existed at the time, allowing for continued trade — and opening up a loophole for the introduction of new ivory pieces.
Jan Vertefeuille of WWF said that Hong Kong's 111 metric-ton stockpile of ivory has "barely moved" since the 1990 ban, highlighting how licensed vendors routinely engage in the trafficking of illegal ivory products.
Ninety percent of ivory buyers in Hong Kong are tourists from mainland China, despite the a prohibition on ivory exports without a permit, according to Vertefeuille.
"The illegal ivory market in Hong Kong caters almost exclusively to tourists," Harmon said. He added that vendors are known to doctor existing permits and to coach tourists on how to smuggle ivory out of Hong Kong.
China and the United States announced in September a joint commitment to ban trade in Ivory, which Vertefeuille said likely spurred Hong Kong to take action.
"When you see two superpowers like the United States and China make a significant joint commitment like they did on ivory in September, that definitely gets the world's attention," Vertefeuille said.
Follow Hannah K. Gold on Twitter: @togglecoat
Watch Ivory Crush in Times Square here: