Hong Kong ‘Legal’ Ivory Market Covers For Bloody Outlaw Trade

In Hong Kong, they call it “white gold.” In much of the rest of the world, they just call it “illegal.” But conservationists and animal advocates now fear that the Chinese city’s booming trade in “legal” ivory is causing the blood-soaked illegal trade to surge as well, once again threatening the world’s population of elephants.

Prices of ivory sold in Hong Kong shops have skyrocketed in the past decade, zooming up by a factor of 50, according to a report in the English-language South China Morning Post newspaper.

A pair of mounted elephant tusks recently sold for 15 million Hong Kong dollars at a store there. That’s the equivalent of more than $1.9 million in American cash. The tusks weighed in at 65 kilograms, or 143 pounds, giving them a per-kilogram price of HK$230,000, approximately — or about $30,000 in U.S. money.

But the price that brings just one kilogram of ivory today purchased a 78 kilogram pair of tusks in 2002, in one reported sale.

So what makes an item of ivory “legal,” despite a worldwide ban on harvesting the tusks of elephants? Simple. The ivory must have been taken before 1989, when the ban went into effect.

Oddly, ivory objects created from the tusks of extinct mammoths are also considered legal. But there isn’t nearly enough legal ivory to meet the current demand, and verifying exactly when a piece of ivory was collected is difficult if not impossible.

The rising price of “legal” ivory has made it a status symbol in the increasingly prosperous city of Hong Kong.

“Millions of people who are getting into the middle class want to have a piece of ivory,” Grace Gabriel, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare told London’s Independent newspaper. “The world does not have enough elephants to supply that ivory.”

While China attempts to regulate the ivory trade, licensing shops that can carry legal ivory and prohibiting ivory bought in Hong Kong from exiting the city, the regulations are difficult to enforce and often just give an open market to underground ivory traders.

“Legal markets provide cover for illegal ivory to be laundered,” said Gabriel.

The costs of the illegal ivory trade are gruesome and high. According to National Geographic reporter Bryan Christy, author of a report, “Blood Ivory” that exposed the illegal trade, “Tens of thousands of elephants a year are being slaughtered. Hundreds at a time have been mowed down by terroristic bands operating in West and Central Africa.”

Poachers have even been known to feed poisoned watermelons to elephants, just to kill the animals and take their ivory, Christy reports.