HONG KONG — Authorities in Hong Kong Thursday began the process of destroying nearly 30 tons of ivory, arguing that it was too expensive to safeguard one of the world’s largest caches of elephant tusk. While conservationists praise the gesture, saying it shows the government's commitment to fighting wildlife crime, many insist more needs to be done in Asia to help tackle the poaching of critically endangered elephant and rhino species.
After years of indecision, the Hong Kong government has incinerated the first ton of ivory from its vast stockpile of elephant tusk, confiscated from wildlife crime syndicates since 2004.
Speaking at the facility where the 35 barrels of chopped ivory were destroyed, the head of the Endangered Species Advisory Committee, Paul Shin, told reporters that Hong Kong was intent on helping end elephant poaching.
“Today is not a celebration, but a solemn reminder of the tragedy that so many elephants have been illegally killed solely for the market value of their tusk," said Shin.
The semi-autonomous Chinese city is a major transshipment hub for the illegal trade in elephant tusk and rhino horn. Last year, local officials seized eight tons of ivory, from countries as far away as Nigeria and South Africa, that were en route to increasingly affluent consumers across Asia.
Members of the government advisory committee had faced criticism for their previous reluctance to destroy the stockpile. They cited its potential resale value on the legal market as prices soared.
With China and the United States beginning to incinerate their own stockpiles earlier this year, officials announced in January that Hong Kong would incinerate 28 tons of tusk by mid-2015.
That process could help educate Asian consumers, not just about animal conservation but about wider issues linked to elephant and rhino poaching including armed conflict, says Julie Ayling of the Transnational Environmental Crime project at Australian National University.
“For example, the evidence indicates that some militias, insurgent groups in Africa, have become involved in the illegal wildlife trade. There is a suggestion that the Janjaweed from Sudan have been involved in ivory smuggling to make money [for their cause]," said Ayling.
While incineration removes any chance of poached ivory being laundered back into the market, there need to be more studies on the effects of destroying supplies, suggests Tom Milliken, head of elephant and rhino programs at the wildlife trade monitoring network, Traffic.
“Conventionally, if you have a commodity in high demand and you reduce supply, you get an increase in price. We need to be evidence led. We cannot just embrace the notion that [burning] is a solution without being able to root that conviction in the reality of what is happening on the black market," said Milliken.
Efforts to eradicate the black market must also be maintained across Asia, adds Milliken. In particular, focus needs to return to widely ignored countries like Thailand, where, he says, the tourist trade in ivory trinkets needs to be shut down completely.
“The Thai government has tacitly committed to this, but the political turmoil there is completely retarding any meaningful progress," he said. "If we’re not going to see results in the short term, then maybe we need to be pushing for things like sanctions to get better compliance?”
Amid the gloom of ever-dwindling elephant populations, Milliken and other conservationists take solace from Japan. A decade ago, Japan was a major ivory consumer. Today, that market has diminished considerably as younger generations turn their back on the commodity.
With several Hong Kong retailers this week announcing they will no longer sell ivory products, the hope is that the incineration of the Hong Kong stockpile might spark a similar success.