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Ivory Trade Ban Bad News for Hong Kong Carvers

November 22, 1989

HONG KONG (AP) _ Seated in his workshop where he has meticulously transformed elephant tusks into intricate ivory artwork for four decades, Wong Cheong-lam knows the days of his craft are numbered.

″I’m the only one left,″ he sighs, looking around the the workshop where six carvers once worked.

The artwork crafted by the 55-year-old Wong and the 1,200 or so other ivory carvers in Hong Kong has long been popular.

Wholesalers from the United States, Europe and Japan have eagerly snapped up tons of ivory worked in Hong Kong. Shop windows in tourist districts display works ranging from panormaic landscapes carved from an entire tusk to delicate earrings.

But now the centuries-old craft may be doomed.

In October, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) adopted a ban on world ivory trading to save Africa’s dwindling elephant population, which has dropped from 1.5 million in the 1970s to an estimated 600,000 now - victims of poachers after their tusks.

The ban gives ivory traders until Jan. 18 to sell their stocks. But Hong Kong companies say they will need much longer to sell 670 tons of ivory, the world’s largest known stockpile, worth about $128 million.

Wong estimates the value of his own uncarved ivory at about $25,600 and said he has no idea what to do. ″It’ll take at least five years to carve it all.″

Local traders are lobbying the government in this British colony to allow them to continue sales past the January deadline and are scrambling to figure out how to save their industry.

″Between the elephants and the carvers, who do you think should be protected?″ asked an angry Dominic Ng, a leading ivory trader.

Ng suggests the government forbid the import of more tusks but allow the carving and export of the existing stockpile until the ban is reviewed in 1991 by CITES.

But since the United States, Japan and other major ivory import markets are upholding the ban, it is not clear how much such a policy would help the industry in Hong Kong. The only legal market for traders would be smaller countries that do not belong to CITES or refuse to go along with the ban.

The Hong Kong government has indicated it will abide by the trade ban, and officials are considering vocational training for carvers thrown out of work.

But Wong is skeptical about retraining workers.

″Ivory carvers usually do not have much education,″ he said. ″It is too late for them to learn another skill and doing other odd jobs will barely make ends meet.″

The government also has promised to seek support for the creation of an international fund to buy up the ivory stockpile in Hong Kong.

Local traders are demanding compensation for their stockpile, which they say consists of ivory that was purchased with approval by CITES before it imposed the ban.

A government survey found 93 percent of the ivory in Hong Kong contains valid CITES certification, but conservationists argue much of the stockpile comes from the tusks of poached elephants that the convention has nonetheless allowed onto the market.

Nicholas Pirie, chairman of the local branch of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says the Hong Kong ivory must be destroyed.

If ivory exports were permitted to continue, it would be easy for more poached ivory to be smuggled into the colony and claimed as part of the original stockpile, Pirie argues.

″I sympathize with the workers but I don’t sympathize with the bosses,″ he said.

At his workshop, in an old residential building, Wong methodically works on a six-inch-high elephant figure, using a tiny drill to carve wrinkles in the animal’s feet. The project will take up to three weeks.

Such craftsmanship has been an integral part of Chinese art for centuries. But Wong believes the long history of ivory carving in Hong Kong, now the main center for such work, is reaching an end with or without the ban.

″Who wants to learn how to carve ivory nowadays?″ he said, explaining it takes five years of apprenticeship and pays only about $500 a month.