Hong Kong launched a landmark bill to ban its ivory trade Wednesday, describing it as an effort to “eradicate” the illegal poaching of elephants.
The southern Chinese city is a major hub for ivory sales and announced last year that it would ban the import and export of the goods, but later clarified it would only completely abolish the trade by 2021.
Critics say authorities are dragging their feet and lagging behind China, where officials in December pledged to halt the enterprise by the end of 2017.
A new amendment to the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants ordinance was presented to lawmakers Wednesday, designed to toughen regulations and “phase out the local ivory trade”, but said it would be a five-year process.
Environment minister Wong Kam-sing said the city must respond to the demands of the international community as he formally introduced the bill at the legislative council Wednesday.
The trade would “fully come to a close” by 2021, he added.
A frontline park ranger from the Democratic Republic of Congo last week delivered emotional testimony to legislators, describing the violent nature of the trade.
Garamba National Park manager Erik Mararv said he and his team were ambushed by poachers near an elephant carcass “with its face hacked off” last year, leading to the deaths of three rangers.
He went on to argue that Hong Kong should not compensate its own ivory traders as it could further encourage the violent industry.
Angry sellers in Hong Kong are demanding payback, claiming they have been unable to offload much of their remaining stock since the market diminished following an international ban nearly three decades ago.
The global trade in elephant ivory, with rare exceptions, has been outlawed since 1989 after populations of the African giants dropped from millions in the mid-20th century to around 600,000 by the end of the 1980s. There are now believed to be some 415,000.
Lawmaker Regina Ip on Wednesday raised the question of compensation for traders, but Wong said the government would not buy up the ivory as the city was “determined” to close down the market.
African ivory is highly sought after in China, where it is seen as a status symbol, and where elephant tusks are used in traditional medicine or to make ornaments.