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HONG KONG (Reuters) - African rangers detailed harrowing first-hand tales of elephant poaching at a public hearing in Hong Kong on Tuesday, the latest attempt to halt wildlife trafficking through the Chinese-ruled city, as ivory traders defended their business.
Hong Kong, at the mouth of China's Pearl River Delta, is one of the world’s top global transit hubs for endangered species and their products, like ivory, shark fin, pangolin and rosewood.
Shark fin and pangolin are considered delicacies in China and the scales of pangolin, one of the most widely trafficked wild animals in the world, are used in traditional Chinese medicine.
The hearing, held in the legislature, was marked by a testy standoff between traders, who argue their business is legal, and conservationists who say Hong Kong’s prime role is pushing elephants towards extinction.
The former British colony has lagged behind other places, including China, in implementing tighter regulations, or bans, on trading of ivory and shark fin.
The United States, Singapore and China have banned the ivory trade and the mainland will close down all such operations by the end of this year. Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, has only timetabled a ban by 2021.
"If you are to be in Africa today, you can see how people are suffering. I am pleading with you this trade should come to an end," Josias Mungabwa, a former wildlife crime investigator with the Zambian Wildlife Authority Investigations and Intelligence Unit, said.
Hong Kong has the largest retail market for ivory with 90 percent of consumers from the mainland. The trade has been active for more than 150 years with ivory made into jewellery and sculptures.
Groups including the World Wildlife Fund state that loopholes in Hong Kong's regulatory system mean that traders can use a stockpile of legal ivory as a front while they smuggle illegal ivory to unsuspecting buyers.
Erik Mararv, manager of Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said 100 elephants are poached a day while 1,000 rangers have been killed over the last 10 years trying to protect them.
Ahead of the hearing, activists waving graphic placards showing dead elephants were accompanied by a giant inflatable elephant and a Senegalese drumming band which drowned out the shouts from jeering ivory traders.
Later in the week, a protest outside a famous restaurant by the city’s trademark harbour is planned against the shark fin trade.
A study from Hong Kong’s Shark Foundation released on May 31 showed large restaurant groups were serving shark fin from endangered species like the dusky shark and the silky shark.
Elizabeth Quat, a legislator who has lobbied the government to strengthen the combat of wildlife smuggling, said she hoped an official bill to ban the import of ivory would be introduced by the end of this year.
"Today we are reaching the last battle... It is the last chance in our generation to save such a beautiful species," she said.
Reporting by Farah Master and William Ho; Editing by Nick Macfie