HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong has called for an end to local ivory trading within five years, a move activists hailed as significant given the financial hub's reputation as a wildlife trafficking blackspot, while calling for this ban to be speeded up.
The former British colony acts an important transit and consumption hub for illegal ivory to China and the rest of Asia, due to its role as a major importer, trader and manufacturer before the trade was banned internationally in 1990.
Hong Kong, a Chinese "Special Administrative Region", allows trade of "pre-convention ivory" which refers to products such as ivory carvings and crafts acquired before 1975, as long as they are accompanied by certificates.
Officials on Monday discussed a plan to completely ban all forms of ivory trading by the end of 2021 after sustained campaigning from activists who argued the legal trade masked an illegal parallel trade which encouraged elephant killings.
The Hong Kong government said it was committed to the protection of endangered species in a paper presented to the city's legislature. Lawmaker Elizabeth Quat said ivory smuggling was tarnishing Hong Kong's image.
"The international community has become aware that the killing of elephants can only be stopped by putting an end to such trading," she said.
The WWF conservation group has campaigned fiercely to phase out commercial ivory sales within two years. In a June report, the environmental body said more than 30,000 African elephants were poached for their tusks annually, and that smugglers and illegal traders remained in business. There are 470,000 elephants left in Africa.
"It is a watershed moment because the Hong Kong government has finally tabled a timeline," said Alex Hofford, campaign manager for WildAid, an organization focused on ending illegal trade in shark fin, ivory and rhino horn.
"We just think five years is far too long."
Hofford said the situation was an "emergency" and called on Hong Kong to fast-track the process.
China and the United States, two of the biggest ivory markets, announced plans last year to enact almost complete bans on imports and exports of commercial ivory.
Ivory traders have said their sales are legal because they come from an ivory stockpile imported before the international ban.
Daniel Chan, the boss of Lise Carving & Jewellery, one of the 400 or so licensed ivory traders in the city, said the total industry loss would be around HK$1 billion ($128 million).
"My trade will go extinct before elephants go extinct," he told Reuters.
(Reporting by Farah Master, Sharon Shi, Joyce Zhou, Venus Wu and Stefanie McIntyre; Editing by James Pomfret)