On January 31, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council announced a plan to outlaw all ivory sales over the next three years. Hong Kong, which was home to the world’s largest legal ivory market for the past 150 years, will slowly increase restrictions until all traders must dispose of their ivory stocks in 2021.
In 1977, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) listed African elephants in Appendix II. This meant that countries that exported ivory would have to prove that its trade did not contribute to falling elephant populations. After years of hunting began to take a significant toll on the species’ survival, CITES upgraded the African elephant to Appendix I in 1989, which banned international trade of elephant ivory. Although Hong Kong signed the treaty, they allowed domestic trade of ivory that had been imported before 1990, when CITES was established. This exception was problematic, however, because traders soon exploited this loophole in order to sell newer ivory. Between 2000 and 2013, around 33 tons of new ivory were found in shipments. Most recently, 7.2 tons of elephant tusks were seized in a shipment from Malaysia in July 2017. Such incidents have prompted speculation regarding the severity of ivory smuggling in Hong Kong.
Numerous arguments both for and against the ban have risen. Conservationists around the world consider the ban a significant step in the right direction. Hong Kong’s proximity to mainland China makes it easy for Chinese buyers to circumvent their own ban by going to Hong Kong. This ban will make it much more difficult for those buyers to obtain ivory, thus strengthening the Chinese ban and potentially pressuring countries like Japan and the United Kingdom to halt their ivory trades as well. The closing of the remaining legal market in Hong Kong will also make it nearly impossible for sellers to smuggle in newer ivory into the country, reducing the need to poach elephants. Some argue, however, that the lax three-year timeline will cause short term surges in ivory sales and imports, or that buyers will simply turn to the existing legal markets in Japan, the UK, and the EU.
Regardless of the long-term efficacy of Hong Kong’s ban, its passage gives CITES a significant amount of legitimacy and clout. Ivory carvings have been an integral part of Chinese culture and history for thousands of years. They were used to depict deities and were considered a “national intangible cultural heritage.” Prioritizing international law over deeply embedded cultural ties may be a sign of the power of international treaties in changing international norms.
Sheel Patel is an editorial intern at the International Enforcement Law Reporter.
 Favre, D. (2001), Elephants, Ivory and International Law. Review of European Community & International Environmental Law, 10: 277–286. doi:10.1111/1467-9388.00287
 Rosencranz, A., & Sehgal, D. (2017). Elephants, ivory and CITES. Environmental Policy and Law, 47(1), 2-5. http://dx.doi.org/10.3233/EPL-170002