Tales of murder and suffering in Hong Kong ivory ban debate

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.

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 $9 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 NGO 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," Leadismo said, wearing his camouflage ranger uniform.

Leadismo later changed into the brightly coloured robes of the Samburu people, a tribe to which he belongs, to speak to reporters and said the pace of the city's ivory ban was "too slow".

The next debate on the bill is scheduled for October.

- 'More valuable' -

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

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.

A range of figures against the trade flew in for the hearing, including American photographer and filmmaker Kate Brooks who released documentary "The Last Animals" earlier this year which looked at conservationists battling poachers and trafficking.

"Can anybody in this room really look a child in the eyes and say that a piece of ivory is more valuable than their father's life?" Brooks asked the hearing.

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.

If the bill is passed, they would have to dispose of their stock by 2021.

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

But 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.