A Hong Kong court has convicted two people of illegally possessing ivory chopsticks after radiocarbon dating proved the items were produced after 1990 and therefore unlawful, the government said Wednesday.

Domestic trade in ivory imported legally into Hong Kong before that year is not against the law if the seller has a government licence.

Ivory. File photo: WildAid.

But the pair were convicted and fined after the dating process established the ivory was obtained after 1990.

Government officials had bought the chopsticks from a crafts shop during an operation last August in the city’s Sheung Wan district, which is dotted with curio and antique vendors.

A court Tuesday imposed fines — of HK$6,000 (US$770) and HK$8,000 — on the operator of the store and its proprietor.

“It’s the first time the Hong Kong government has ever used radiocarbon analysis to determine the age of ivory — that’s a total game-changer in the market,” WildAid wildlife campaigner Alex Hofford told AFP.

While environmental groups welcomed the use of forensic evidence, they condemned the light penalty. The maximum punishment is a HK$5 million fine and two years in jail.

Yannick Kuehl of wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC said in a statement that penalties in Hong Kong “need to increase to reflect better the gravity of wildlife crime and be an effective deterrent…”

Activists and lawmakers gather at the legislature on Monday. Photo: WildAid.

Hong Kong, a key hub for the ivory trade and manufacturing, announced plans last year to phase out sales completely by 2021.

But the government of neighbouring mainland China will ban all ivory trade and processing by the end of this year, a move hailed by conservationists.

Critics have argued that Hong Kong’s five-year timetable to outlaw sales was too slow and would attract illegal business to the city as mainland China moves ahead with its ban.

Conservationists estimate that more than 20,000 elephants were killed for their ivory in 2015, with similar tolls in previous years.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species banned the international ivory trade in 1989.

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