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Backdoor smuggling hole for China

HONG KONG (UCAN): Conservationists have welcomed a move against the ivory and shark fin trades by China, but are worried that the different regulations in force in Hong Kong will leave a few loopholes for the trade to flourish in the special administrative region.

The State Council announced in Beijing on December 29 that China would stop all sales of ivory and its products by the end of 2017.

The ban will be carried out in phases and is designed to end the trading, commercial processing and sale of ivory.

Legal ivory products with high cultural value will be auctioned under strict supervision after obtaining administrative permission.

A week later, on January 6, China Air Cargo announced a no shark fin policy. It is the first airline on the mainland to refuse to carry shark fin.

The company described its action as a commitment to sustainable development and to raising awareness of the unsustainability of the global shark trade.

“The new law helps to raise public awareness about wildlife conservation. The law gives priority to conservation rather than utilisation,” Zhou Fei, the head of TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, said.

Zhou added that the government has realised that the ivory trade is tarnishing its international reputation and enforcement is crucial to ensuring that even if there is a clear political commitment, the ban will be effective on the ground.

Cheryl Lo, the senior crime officer at the World Wide Fund for Nature Hong Kong, says that the government in the territory has set a five-year moratorium on the domestic ivory trade, whereas China will implement the ban within a year.

“This swift action proves Beijing’s determination,” she says.

Lo adds that she is worried that criminals will take advantage of the four-year window left in Hong Kong and the black market will thrive and swell.

The endangered animal and plant trade amounts to US$19 billion ($147.25 billion) annually. Lo fears that in Hong Kong, since the crime only carries a two-year prison stretch and a fine of $5 million, it is a low-risk, high-profit business.

The World Wildlife Fund says that at the beginning of the 20th century, there were around three to four million elephants in Africa, but now there are only 415,000 and their numbers are dropping by 20,000 a year.

An international convention banned the ivory trade between countries in 1990, but a 2015 survey found that most of the current, behind the scenes buyers are from China.

The Chinese government has demanded all telecommunication operators in China send text messages reminding citizens travelling to Africa that importing ivory into China is illegal.

But in comparison with the ivory trade, some conservationists say dealing in shark fin faces greater challenges.

Prentice Koo, from the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, says that for a start, there are not as many regulations on the international shark fin trade.

“The political aspects are problematic since there are many stakeholders involved in the shark fin trade, such as importers, distributors and restaurants,” he said.

Though Koo lauds the first step taken by Air China Cargo as a way of reducing trade volume, he thinks it is far from enough to solve the problem.

“Several carriers in Hong Kong have also introduced a similar policy. Yet, the import amount remains high here. It needs a trade restriction,” he said.

He notes that since China’s anti-corruption campaign banned shark fin at official banquets, consumption on the mainland has dropped by 70 per cent.

However, he points out that because the number of Chinese who bring it back home from Hong Kong is difficult to estimate, it is important to establish a clear and open database.

In Hong Kong, more than 300,000 tables at 11,783 wedding banquets serve shark fin annually.

Koo says his group learned from a survey that only five per cent of people in Hong Kong like shark fin and 20 per cent actually dislike it, but many more are neutral.

He believes this puts the onus of restraint on restaurant managers to keep it off the menu. “Many people eat it because they don’t want to waste food or disrespect their host,” he concludes.

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