China shuts some ivory factories, Hong Kong seen as a loophole

Farah Master

HONG KONG, March 31 (Reuters) - China, the world's largest

importer and end user of elephant ivory tusks, is shutting a

third of its ivory factories and retail stores on Friday, the

first major step ahead of a formal ban on ivory sales by the end

of the year.

China will shut 67 carving factories and stores with the

remaining 105 outlets to be shut before the end of the year,

according to documents released by China's Forestry

Administration.

The high-profile move has been hailed by activists, but they

caution that Hong Kong, a special administrative region of

China, remains a prime obstacle in eradicating the illegal

elephant poaching trade.

The former British colony, which has the largest retail

market for ivory and has traded it for more than 150 years, is a

prime transit and consumption hub with more than 90 percent of

consumers from mainland China.

Hong Kong set a time table for a ban on ivory trading last

year with a phase-out time of five years. Lawmakers met this

week to discuss the ban but have yet to decide on details and

whether to shorten the phase-out process.

Rights groups say a five-year horizon is too long and the

problem of laundering ivory will become far more rampant before

a total ban is in place.

WildAid, a wildlife non-government organisation, estimates

up to 30,000 elephants are killed illegally every year. It said

markets like Hong Kong had provided "laundering mechanisms for

poached ivory and perpetuated the demand".

While the price of ivory has fallen by almost two thirds in

the last three years, according to a report by Save the

Elephants, the danger from poaching remains acute.

China made a big push to eradicate ivory sales and demand

has fallen since early 2014 due to a crackdown on corruption and

slowing economic growth. Public awareness campaigns starring

Chinese celebrities have also helped to highlight the impact of

poaching.

The wholesale price of raw ivory fell to $730 per kg in

February from $1,100 per kg in November 2015 and $2,100 per kg

in early 2014, according to Save the Elephants.

"Hong Kong’s commitment is in stark contrast to China who

are leading the way," Oliver Smith, chief executive of David

Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, said in a letter to Hong Kong

lawmakers, adding that if the five-year period was unchanged,

"an additional 150,000 elephants will have been killed".

(Reporting by Farah Master; Editing by Nick Macfie)