The Hong Kong ivory ban: a step in the right direction?

Updated: Mar 27, 2018

By Sicily Fiennes, Science Writer

The Wildlife Trade

There’s a lot of money in the wildlife trade. The legal trade in wildlife could be worth as much as $20 billion (Barber-Meyer, 2010), but that pales in comparison to the black market. The wildlife black market is now the fourth largest industry in the world, behind only the trafficking of drugs, arms, and people (Cao Ngoc and Wyatt, 2013).

As an industry, elephant poaching is valued at $19 billion a year, which accounts for an estimated 30,000 elephants. In 1977, The Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Elephants (CITES) first added the African elephant to its listed species. Since 1989, CITES has banned elephants from international trade. However, several exceptions still threaten the safety of these animals.

Who are the big importers/exporters?

Ivory is sold in "white" legal outlets, "black" illegal shops, online trade forums, and "grey" live auctions of uncertain legality (Gao and Clark, 2014). Consumption of wildlife products in Asia, such as ivory, is often seen as a sign of wealth and status (Nijman, 2010) and its proliferation caters towards Asia’s growing middle class demographic (Cao Ngoc and Wyatt, 2013). Asian countries such as Thailand and China are notorious for their ivory imports (Nijman and Shepherd, 2014) and it’s estimated that two-thirds of ivory for sale in Chinese shops comes from an illegal source (Vigne and Martin, 2011).

The UK remains the largest exporter of legally-traded ivory, the majority of which ships to Hong Kong and mainland China (Leung, 2018). The UK-based Environment Investigation Agency (EIA) noted that between 2010 and 2015, the UK exported nearly three times as much legal ivory as the US, the second largest exporter (Leung, 2018).

What does the ban mean?

Hong Kong is the most significant city market for ivory, and the recent announcement of the 2021 ban has vast conservation implications (Leung, 2018). Under the ban, ivory will continue to be sold for commercial purposes, allowing the continued trade of ‘legal’ ivory poached before the 1979 CITES trade ban. The ban stipulates higher fines and longer jail sentences for those caught trading ivory illegally. Under the ban, some hope to see a correlated reduction in poaching pressure of wildlife populations. The ban is a step towards tackling the massive demand for ivory and the poaching that comes as a result.

The rise of trade elsewhere

Despite the reduced consumption expected from the ban in Hong Kong, the ban could, in fact, fuel the ivory trade in other, nearby countries. We have seen the potential before for wildlife, especially CITES-listed species, to be laundered through other Asian nations to be ‘legally’ (re)exported (Shepherd, Stengel, and Nijman, 2012).

However, last year, a vast increase in Laos’s ivory trade was reported (Agence France-Presse, 2017). Ivory in Laos is said to be newer (post-trade ban) and cheaper, with 80% of the consumer demographic made up of Chinese visitors (Agence France-Presse, 2017). Ivory shops in the capital, Vientiane, have reportedly increased ten-fold.

On the China-Myanmar border, Mong La is another trade hotspot. Items like dried elephant skin, carved ivory, and whole tusks line store shelves (Nijman and Shepherd, 2014). As a result, the elephant ivory from Myanmar might be African ivory imported via China, as well as Asian elephant ivory imported through Myanmar (Nijman and Shepherd, 2014). Mong La is ideally situated along both the Chinese and Thailand borders as well as known ivory transport routes. (Nijman and Shepherd, 2014).

Consequently, blanket trade bans could increase the allure of more clandestine, illegal trade (Cooney and Jepson, 2006). Adding to this issue, distinguishing between legal stockpiles and newly poached product is notoriously complex. Furthermore, increasing social taboos towards ivory have allowed trade to switch to other ivory substitutes, such as the exponential rise of wild hunting of the Helmeted Hornbill, Rhinoplax vigil (Collar, 2015). An EIA report estimated this ‘red ivory’ sells for up to five times the price of elephant ivory on the black market (Collar, 2015).

Demand for ivory also needs to be tackled. While some governments have made steps towards improving enforcement, governments and traders alike must continually support the work of organizations such as the EIA. Corporations, especially shipping companies, must refuse to ship ivory products. Likewise consumers have a responsibility to boycott the purchase of ivory products.

Ultimately, while the ban in the long term is a sound conservation policy, it could be insufficient to reduce demand for elephant products. An ideal market scenario would be to flood the market with cheap, legally-sourced ivory or to homogenize enforcement across Asia to mitigate the effects of illegal trade. Furthermore, we need the leading exporters such as the UK and the US to finalize and implement their consultation on total bans. By implementing and enforcing these bans, we can change public perception, and create a world in which the value of elephants extends far past the worth of their ivory alone.


Agence France-Presse (2017) ‘There’s no law enforcement’: Laos has become the world’s fastest-growing ivory market, thanks to Chinese demand | South China Morning Post. Available at: (Accessed: 26 February 2018).

Barber-Meyer, S. M. (2010) ‘Dealing with the clandestine nature of wildlife-trade market surveys’, Conservation Biology, 24(4), pp. 918–923. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01500.x.

Cao Ngoc, A. and Wyatt, T. (2013) ‘A Green Criminological Exploration of Illegal Wildlife Trade in Vietnam’, Asian Journal of Criminology, 8(2), pp. 129–142. doi: 10.1007/s11417-012-9154-y.

Collar, N. J. (2015) ‘Helmeted Hornbills Rhinoplax vigil and the ivory trade : the crisis that came out of nowhere’, BirdingASIA, 24(August), pp. 12–17.

Cooney, R. and Jepson, P. (2006) ‘The international wild bird trade: What’s wrong with blanket bans?’, Oryx, 40(1), pp. 18–23. doi: 10.1017/S0030605306000056.

Gao, Y. and Clark, S. G. (2014) ‘Elephant ivory trade in China: Trends and drivers’, Biological Conservation, 180, pp. 23–30. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2014.09.020.

Leung, C. (2018) ‘Need for action beyond dispute’: Britain’s shameful ivory trade set to end with total ban proposed | South China Morning Post, South China Morning Post. Available at: (Accessed: 26 February 2018).

Nijman, V. (2010) ‘An overview of international wildlife trade from Southeast Asia’, Biodiversity and Conservation, 19(4), pp. 1101–1114. doi: 10.1007/s10531-009-9758-4.

Nijman, V. and Shepherd, C. R. (2014) ‘Emergence of Mong La on the Myanmar-China border as a global hub for the international trade in ivory and elephant parts’, Biological Conservation, 179, pp. 17–22. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2014.08.010.

Shepherd, C. R., Stengel, C. J. and Nijman, V. (2012) The export and re-export of CITES-listed birds from the Solomon Islands.

Vigne, L. and Martin, E. (2011) ‘Consumption of elephant and mammoth ivory increases in Southern China’, Pachyderm, 49(1), pp. 79–88.


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