WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has unveiled a comprehensive strategy for combating wildlife trafficking in hopes of curbing illicit poaching that is threatening to wipe out elephants, rhinoceros and other endangered species in Africa. The document issued Tuesday places an almost complete ban on the ivory trade in the United States. Meanwhile, representatives of many African countries are meeting with world's leading conservationists in London to discuss how to stop the illegal sale of ivory.
A large pile of ivory was crushed in central London as a symbolic gesture, ahead of a major summit this week aimed at curbing illegal wildlife trade. Rowena Paxton was among citizens who gave away their ivory items to be crushed.
"I feel like a big weight has been taken off me and I'm now to say goodbye and I just say please, please save our elephants, save our rhino," said Paxton.
A 1989 ban outlawed the international trade in ivory, but cross-border smuggling continues. Conservationists estimate that more than 25,000 elephants are killed across Africa each year so their tusks can be extracted for ivory. French customs official Sebastien Tiran said France seizes at least a half-ton of ivory per year.
"What we have noticed regarding trafficking of protected species is that there is a lot of change, but one thing that never changes is the interest of consumers for ivory," said Tiran.
To curb the illegal ivory trade, experts said it is important to reduce the demand. Many blame China for the continued large ivory trade. Some residents of Hong Kong hold annual protests against the practice.
"I think Chinese people's idea about this kind of animal product is changing. It's not like before, we are changing,” said Amy Wang, a woman from mainland China living in Hong Kong.
Destruction of the existing stockpile is another way of undermining the trade, although some people say it also makes the ivory more expensive. The World Wildlife Fund reported that the price of ivory in China has reached $2,000 per kilogram. China has cracked down on smugglers recently and has joined the United States, France, Britain and others in destroying illegal ivory stockpiles. French Minister of Ecology Phillippe Martin said it is an important gesture.
"The fact that China crushed, as we do today, six tons of seized ivory is very important because there are consumers in China, so our message to traffickers is - this (the crushing) is our statement, and to consumers - this (ivory) isn't worth anything; elephants should be protected in Africa," said Martin.
Conservationists say that Africa's elephant population has dwindled from millions to about 500,000, and that nearly 10 percent are being slaughtered each year. They warn that only tough action can save the elephants from extinction.