By Peter Martell
Rampant illegal trading in ivory in Hong Kong is pushing elephants towards extinction, conservationists say, reporting more ivory items on sale there than in any other city.
The sale of ivory items from government-registered stockpiles predating the 1990 ban is allowed for domestic use in Hong Kong, but the report finds tusks from recently slaughtered elephants are being passed off as old ivory on a huge scale.
"Hong Kong's ivory trade is creating a significant loophole in international efforts to end the killing of elephants in Africa," conservation organisation Save the Elephants said on Thursday in a report released in Kenya and Hong Kong.
"No other city surveyed has so many pieces of ivory on sale as Hong Kong," co-author Esmond Martin said.
The report found more than 30,800 items - mainly jewellery and figurines - for sale in 72 stores and estimated that over 90 percent of sales were to buyers from mainland China where demand for ivory is high.
Combined with "lax" border controls with China, where some 40 million people cross each year, the Hong Kong trade is having a major impact on efforts to end elephant poaching in Africa.
"A mass slaughtering of African elephants is underway, yet the Hong Kong government is turning a blind eye," said Alex Hofford of campaign group WildAid.
"For 25 years since the international ban, Hong Kong's ivory traders appear to have been laundering poached ivory from illegally-killed elephants into their stocks," said Hofford.
The report described Hong Kong as the world's third-largest ivory smuggling hub after Kenya and Tanzania.
Beijing has made efforts to curb the trade, stepping up prosecutions of smugglers and seizures of ivory at border posts, but campaigners say the measures have not gone far enough.
Surging demand for ivory in Asia is behind an increasing death toll of African elephants, conservationists say, as authorities fail to bust international smuggling networks.
"Unless the ivory trade in Hong Kong is closed down the territory will continue to represent a major threat to survival of the species," said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants.
More than 30,000 elephants are killed every year to satisfy demand for ivory in China and the Far East, where tusks are worth more than US$2000 (NZ$3073) a kilo.