Some ivory sellers readily admit that such sleight-of-hand occurred, blaming unscrupulous traders while casting themselves as collateral damage in the struggle to contain the illegal wildlife trade.
“Sly and dishonest businessmen, they make it difficult for us,” said Leung Shun-cheung, who with his sister, Leung Yun-tim, runs the Hang Cheong Ivory Factory, a small shop on Queen’s Road. “They use the smuggled ivory to fill the space in their quota for legal ivory. That’s how they did it. But we are innocent.”
On an early evening in August, Mr. Leung was crouched over a workbench in the shop, sanding a pair of ivory chopsticks he had carved, while Ms. Leung sorted through bills at a nearby desk. The bare fluorescent light bulbs illuminated dusty glass shelves packed full of ivory carvings, but no customers.
“Because of the ban, we don’t have much business,” Ms. Leung said. “From time to time, the locals come here to buy a small piece.” She said that in three years, when the domestic ban goes into effect, they intended to close their shop, which their father opened before World War II.
Mr. Leung produced a sheaf of letters he had received from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, advising him of the 2021 deadline and offering to enroll him in training for a new career. He was 72 years old, and had only ever worked in the ivory shop.
“The government is asking me to retire at the age of 75,” he said, laughing grimly. “They’re very concerned about me.”
He settled the chopsticks in a display case: two slender increments of supply awaiting a demand that remained vast, but for the moment, out of reach.
Reporting was contributed by Xiaomei Chen in Hong Kong.