Tales of murder and suffering in Hong Kong debate on ivory ban

Park ranger Chris Leadismo said he and his  colleagues put their lives on the line to protect elephants.
Park ranger Chris Leadismo said he and his colleagues put their lives on the line to protect elephants.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (AFP) - A Kenyan park ranger who said his closest friend was shot dead while protecting elephants urged Hong Kong not to compensate the city's ivory traders, in an emotive speech to lawmakers on Wednesday (Sept 6).

Hong Kong is a major hub for ivory sales and last year announced that it would introduce a total ban on the trade.

But authorities later clarified they would only completely abolish the trade by 2021, drawing criticism they were dragging their feet and trailing China, where officials last year pledged to halt the enterprise by the end of 2017.

Angry ivory traders in Hong Kong say they will be forced to close down their businesses and are demanding the government compensate them for their stock, a move opponents say would fuel the illicit business and encourage stockpiling.

Despite the planned ban, the trade is still flourishing in Hong Kong, which saw its biggest ivory bust in three decades in July, when more than seven tonnes of tusks worth over US$9 million (S$12 million) were seized.

During a public debate at the city's legislature over the ivory ban bill, ranger Chris Leadismo, the head of wildlife security at non-government organisation Save the Elephants in northern Kenya, said he and his colleagues put their lives on the line to protect elephants.

"I still recall the death of my very closest friend Joseph, who was shot dead while in the line of duty in June this year. There is still pain in my heart," Mr Leadismo said, wearing his camouflage ranger uniform.

He told how he left his wife and sons for long periods of time as part of his work to protect the elephants in his area.

"I know it breaks her heart, but I still go because if no one keeps the peace in our landscape, eventually, we will all be victims of poachers, one way or another," he said.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says more than 20,000 African elephants die every year to feed the ivory trade in Asia and Hong Kong.

WWF wildlife law enforcement officer Crispian Barlow told the hearing that the violence around the trade was escalating.

"I had a ranger who was drowned, another was set on fire while he was asleep," he said.

However, traders hit back, saying they had been forced to sell off their remaining stock for the past 27 years, following an international ban in 1989.

The ban came after African elephant populations dropped from millions in the mid-20th century to some 600,000 by the end of the 1980s.

"We are the victims... We have put all our capital into this industry," ivory seller Chu Chun-pong told the hearing.

But Mr Leadismo said compensation would only fuel the business.

"As they are compensated, more elephants will die to fuel this trade, and I will lose more comrades, or even my life as a wildlife ranger," he said.