Hong Kong government adviser resigns over illegal ivory links

HONG KONG (Reuters) - A Hong Kong ivory trader fined this week for illegal possession of ivory resigned on Wednesday from a government advisory panel to protect endangered species, a potentially embarrassing blow for a city fighting to stamp out smuggling of ivory.

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Hong Kong has the largest retail market for ivory, which it has traded for more than 150 years. The territory is a prime transit and consumption hub, with more than 90 percent of consumers from mainland China.

Earlier on Wednesday Reuters reported that government records showed Lau Sai-yuan was a member of the Endangered Species Advisory Committee of Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD).

Lau announced he would step down from the committee, broadcaster RTHK said on Wednesday afternoon. His term was to have run until Sept. 30 this year.

Neither the AFCD nor the government responded to requests for comment.

Lau, a member of the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce and the Hong Kong Art Craft Merchants Association, had pleaded guilty on Tuesday to illegal ivory possession and was fined HK$8,000 ($1,022).

The conviction came less than two weeks after China enforced a total ban on ivory sales.

“This entire debacle demonstrates just how rotten and corrupt the Hong Kong ivory trade has become, which is why lawmakers need to hurry up and pass the ivory ban and maximum penalty review,” said Alex Hofford, a campaigner for non-government body WildAid.

Hong Kong lawmakers are considering a boost in penalties, to a fine to up to HK$10 million and jail time of 10 years, from the current maximum penalty of two years in prison.

China is the world’s largest importer and end user of elephant tusks. Wildlife activists called the ban, adopted at the end of 2017, a vital step to reduce the slaughter of the endangered animals.

Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, has lagged far behind and only set a timetable for a ban on ivory trading last year, with a phase-out time of five years.

The former British colony adheres to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which started in the 1970s to regulate international trade in ivory, before banning it from 1990.

A Hong Kong government-led operation in June 2017 found Lau was one of two ivory traders who had sold ivory chopsticks with ivory obtained after the 1990 ban.

Only “pre-Convention ivory” is allowed to be traded, with the ivory accompanied by a pre-convention certificate.

Trade in pre-convention ivory has thrived in China and Hong Kong since 1975. Environmental activists say it has led to an increase in laundering ivory and is a prime obstacle in stamping out poaching.

Reporting Farah Master; Editing by Clarence Fernandez