China Monday destroyed six tonnes of ivory and other wildlife products in a landmark event aimed at shedding its image as a global hub for the illegal trade in African elephant tusks.
In what was described as the first ever public destruction of ivory in China, masked workers fed tusks from a pile surrounded by ivory carvings into crushing machines in the southern city of Dongguan.
Official delegations from 10 countries attended the event, including the US, UK, India, Kenya, Gabon and Tanzania.
The event was “the country’s latest effort to discourage illegal ivory trade, protect wildlife and raise public awareness”, the official news agency Xinhua said.
Surging demand for ivory in Asia is behind an ever-mounting death toll of African elephants, conservationists say, as authorities have failed to rein in international smuggling networks.
Experts believe that most illegal ivory is headed to China — where products made from the material have long been seen as status symbols — with some estimating the country accounts for as much as 70 per cent of global demand.
Chinese forestry and customs officials oversaw the destruction, which was shown live by state broadcaster CCTV. It reported that the ivory weighed 6.1 tonnes and had been seized over a period of years.
Some of the crushed ivory powder would be disposed off, some would be displayed in a museum exhibit while the rest would be “preserved”, state-run China National Radio reported. The substance can be used as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.
China was in March named by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as one of eight nations not doing enough to tackle the illegal trade in elephant ivory.
CITES banned international ivory trading in 1989, but the environmental group WWF estimates that around 22,000 elephants were hunted for their tusks in 2012, with a greater number projected for the following year. There could be as few as 470,000 left, it says.
Other countries have carried out similar exercises, with the US crushing six tonnes of ivory in November. The Philippines destroyed five tonnes of tusks in June, and Kenya set fire to a pile of the same weight in 2011.
Efforts to save the African elephant are likely to receive a boost following the move by the populous Asian nation to destroy six tonnes of illegal ivory today estimated to be worth millions of dollars.
Over 35,000 elephants are killed every year in Africa for their ivory with Kenya among the nations whose jumbo population has been a target by poachers.
Much of the wildlife trophies end up in the black market in China where demand for such is high.
In China alone, the price of raw ivory has skyrocketed and in 2011, the price of ivory was reported to be Sh23,490 ($270) per kilogramme. By October 2012, the reported price of raw ivory on the black market was Sh78,300 ($900) per kilogramme.
In its move Monday and a rare gesture to the world, especially Africa where it has continued to make serious business foray, China attempted to tell the world that is serious about fighting poaching.
“Wildlife trafficking has become a serious problem and illegal trade of ivory and wildlife trade is increasing,” said the Chinese government through a press release from the State Forestry Administration.
“For the purpose of raising public awareness and demonstrating Chinese government resolve to combat wildlife trafficking, the State Forestry Administration and the General Administration of Customs of China will hold the burning ceremony of confiscated ivory and other illegal wildlife products on January 6, 2014, in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province,” the statement added.
The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) welcomed the move, noting that hundreds of elephants died every year in the hands of poachers.
According to KWS spokesman Paul Mbugua, about 13.5 tonnes of ivory were intercepted at the port of Mombasa last year while the number of elephants killed by poachers within the same period was estimated to be 300.
“It is a good gesture and we applaud it, it will disrupt the supply chain and discourage poachers,” he told the Nation by phone Monday.
He said the number of elephants killed in 2013 had come down compared to 384 killed in 2012 but declined to give the value of impounded ivory. “The ivory we nabbed is not from Kenya alone but from other East and Central Africa countries,” added Mr Mbugua.
But the EAL, while noting that China was the final destination of most of the illegal ivory and its domestic legal market the principal cause for the slaughter, said the quantity of ivory to be destroyed was just a fraction of the country’s stockpile of illegal ivory.
“Elephant Action League fears that this ceremony is just a public relations exercise to ease the pressure from the international community,” the lobby group’s executive director Andrea Crosta said.
The conservationist organisation also noted the illegal ivory trade was also the cause of a heavy human toll.
“It provides funds to criminal and terrorist groups, and hundreds of people die every year trying to defend or kill elephants, leaving behind orphans, widows and entire local communities exploited,” EAL added.
Kenya destroyed a consignment of ivory worth an estimated Sh60 million in the early 1990s.