HONG KONG (AP) — Wong Lai-ngan hunches over a battered workbench, his electric rotary tool whining as he carves two phoenixes facing each other into a smooth white tusk.
Decades ago, Wong’s canvas would have been elephant ivory. But since a 1990 ban on international trading, Hong Kong’s dwindling tribe of ivory carvers has switched to tusks of extinct woolly mammoths.
The decline of the city’s once-flourishing ivory business is set to speed up after the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese governments announced in December plans to restrict local ivory trading. Wildlife activists hailed the news, saying domestic markets must be phased out to reduce the demand for tusks driving an epidemic of poaching that is decimating Africa’s elephants.
It also signals the end for Hong Kong’s ivory craftsmen and traders.
“It’s pretty much all dead now,” said Wong, 77, who started carving ivory more than 50 years ago. “The government has pretty much killed it all. There are no more ivory imports and there’s no business going out,” he said, working in flip-flops and wearing a flimsy face mask to guard against the fine white dust spewed out by his drill, coating his jeans.
Beijing plans to start shutting China’s ivory carving factories and shops by March and ban local sales by the end of 2017. Hong Kong’s blueprint would end local trading by 2021. Those moves are raising pressure on European countries to do the same.
Researchers say Hong Kong is the world’s biggest retail ivory market. It’s also a hub for illicit trading of all sorts of endangered wildlife. Customs officers make regular busts of illegal shipments of ivory, rhino horns and pangolin scales destined for the Chinese mainland.
The crackdown on ivory is driven by concern over mass slaughter of Africa’s elephants to meet demand from China, the world’s biggest ivory consumer. According to one recent study, the continent’s savannah elephant population fell 30 percent from 2007 to 2014, to 352,000.
Chinese traditionally have prized ivory carved into bracelets, chopsticks and figurines. Rising demand from the country’s growing middle class has driven up prices, earning it the nickname “white gold.” A one-off auction of African ivory to Japan and China in 2008 also unintentionally helped fuel demand.
Hong Kong has 72 shops whose licenses to sell ivory were obtained before the 1990 ban, according to a 2015 survey by Save the Elephants. Most buyers are mainland Chinese, who smuggle it back home, it found.
There are also 386 legally registered ivory traders in the city, according to government data. Activists suspect some traders use their legal stockpiles to “launder” illegal ivory. They worry that the four-year gap between the enforcement of China’s ban and Hong Kong’s could encourage this.
The problem “will be even more serious because as China is squeezing out their domestic trade, Hong Kong is still having an open market,” said Cheryl Lo, a wildlife crime officer at the World Wildlife Fund. Traders in mainland China could use Hong Kong to liquidate their stock or to ship it to other markets such as Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, which have fewer restrictions, she said.
The time lag “will become a severe enforcement headache for Chinese customs officials along Hong Kong’s border,” said Alex Hofford, a campaigner with WildAid. “So it’s up to the Hong Kong government to decide if they want to align with Beijing, or risk undermining mainland environmental policy from 2018 onwards.”
Hong Kong’s traders say five years is not enough time to sell off their inventory. They want compensation if they have to give up their 75-ton stockpile of legally registered ivory worth billions of dollars. Officials have indicated that’s not an option.
Wong’s employer Daniel Chan, managing director of Lise Carving and Jewellery, says he doesn’t know anything about illegal ivory. Chan’s workshop is filled with hundreds of unsold shrink-wrapped ivory carvings of dragons and Buddha figurines.
Department stores stopped selling Chan’s ivory on consignment after protests by conservation groups, he complains. He denies the ivory industry is responsible for elephant deaths in Africa, despite clear evidence that poaching is the main factor.
The ebbing ivory trade mirrors the decline of other crafts that once helped define Hong Kong’s identity but have been pushed out by changing tastes, rising rents and new technology. Cheap and efficient LED lights have replaced the skyline’s dazzling handmade neon signs; modern vessels have taken the place of iconic wooden sailing junks; and production of aromatic bamboo dim sum steamers has moved to mainland China.
Lam King-leung, who sells name seals, or chops, in the Sheung Wan neighborhood, had a few dozen ivory ones next to plastic and stone versions in his alleyway stall’s display case. But he said they weren’t hot sellers. The smallest ivory chop cost 700 Hong Kong dollars ($90), while plastic ones were HK$100 ($13), he said, warning that ivory could not be taken out of Hong Kong.
“No one’s buying,” he said. “In a year we only sell three or four.”
In the ivory carving industry’s 1970s heyday, Hong Kong factories employed as many as 3,500 carvers. Only a half-dozen part-time carvers are left, along with 10 to 20 full-time mammoth tusk carvers, according to Save the Elephants. The trade is about to disappear, Chan said.
“Young people, none of them want to come into this industry,” said Chan. The existing master carvers “have pretty much all retired, there are very few of them left. Even if they produce something, which owner or company would buy it? There’s no way out.”