HONG KONG (Reuters) - A Hong Kong court found an ivory trader guilty of illegal ivory possession and imposed a relatively light penalty of an HK$8,000 ($1,022) fine on Tuesday, less than two weeks after China implemented a total ban on ivory sales.
China is the world's largest importer and end user of elephant tusks. Wildlife activists called the ban, implemented at the end of 2017, a vital step toward reducing the slaughter of the endangered animals.
Hong Kong trader Lau Sai Yuan was fined HK$8,000 for illegal ivory possession after pleading guilty in Hong Kong's Eastern Magistrates' Court. Another trader, Huen Kwok Leung, pleaded not guilty and his trial was postponed to April.
The maximum penalty under current laws is two years in jail.
Hong Kong lawmakers are considering a significant increase in penalties, with a fine of up to HK$10 million and imprisonment of 10 years.
Hong Kong, a Chinese special administrative region of China, has lagged behind mainland China in the crackdown on illegal ivory trading and only set a timetable for a ban last year, with a phase-out time of five years.
The former British colony is a prime transit and consumption hub with more than 90 percent of consumers from mainland China. It has the largest retail market for ivory, which it has traded for more than 150 years.
Hong Kong adheres to regulations set by The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which started to regulate the international trade of ivory in the 1970s and has banned such trade since 1990.
Only "pre-Convention ivory" is allowed to be traded when the ivory is accompanied by a pre-convention certificate.
A Hong Kong government-led operation to combat illegal ivory trading in June 2017 found two ivory traders had sold ivory chopsticks with ivory obtained after the 1990 ban.
Those two traders were fined HK$6,000 and HK$8,000.
China has made a big push to eradicate ivory sales and demand has fallen since early 2014 because of a crackdown on corruption and slower economic growth.
Trade in pre-convention ivory had been thriving in China and Hong Kong since 1975. Environmental activists have long asserted that it has led to an increase in laundering ivory and remains a prime obstacle in eradicating the illegal poaching trade.
WildAid, a wildlife non-government organization, estimates up to 30,000 elephants are killed illegally every year.
(Reporting by Chermaine Lee and Carmel Yang; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Paul Tait)