In Hong Kong, we know burning ivory will help to save elephants

Seized ivory tusks at the Hong Kong Customs and Excise headquarters in Hong Kong, China, 08 August 2013.As Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China, starts the process to incinerate its entire 30-tonne ivory stockpile, I think back to a particularly moving moment from a previous ivory crush.

At the ceremony where the US government pulverized 6 tonnes of confiscated ivory in Denver last November, a comment by actress and IFAW supporter Kristin Bauer touched me deeply.

Just before Kristin resolutely fed an ivory figurine her WWII veteran father brought back home from Japan nearly seven decades ago into the crusher, she said: “This is just a thing. By destroying it, we can save lives.”

Kristin’s action represents an ethical choice we as consumers can and should make. Destruction of confiscated ivory tusks and trinkets sends the strong message to consumers that because ivory comes from dead elephants and the cruel practice of poaching those elephants, the very existence of the ivory trade is wrong.

The momentum continues.

After the US ivory crush, China crushed 6.1 tonnes of ivory seized from illegal trade in January 2014. Since then, UK, France and Belgium have also turned tonnes of ivory trinkets and whole tusks into dust.

Historically, a number of African countries have incinerated their ivory since the 1980s. Poignantly, while visiting the monument on the site of the 1989 Kenya ivory burn last week, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang vowed to combat poaching and ivory smuggling by strengthening legal systems in China.

Ivory seized from illegal trade is contraband. Destruction of contraband to prevent it from re-entering the market is common practice around the world.

In China for instance, the destruction of confiscated drugs and pirated CDs is accepted as an appropriate disposal method. There have been numerous occasions where wildlife contrabands are publicly destroyed, from tiger pelts and bear paws.

I personally witnessed in 2003 the destruction of Tibetan antelope pelts in the Qinghai-Tibet plateau as China rallied the international community to help protect this indigenous species of China through reducing the demand for their fur as a luxury shawl.

However, destruction of ivory seems to provoke an exceptionally strong reaction. Some people call it “wasteful” regretting to see “beauty” destroyed. Some claim the destruction would increase the market price for ivory making it more desirable. Others even blame the action as “corruption,” accusing the government of covering up the true extent of the illegal ivory trade.

All of these assumptions are flat-out false.

An IFAW survey shows that 70% of the Chinese do not know ivory comes from dead elephants. Yet, 83% say that they would not purchase ivory if they knew elephants are killed for the ivory trade.

IFAW's PSA 'Mom, I got teeth' was displayed in the Beijing subway line

To shed light on the darkness of ignorance, IFAW’s “Mom, I have teeth” public awareness messages in airports, railway stations, bus lines and residential communities across China have been seen by hundreds of millions of people.

An evaluation last year showed this campaign alone has penetrated 75% of the urban China population and effectively lowered the proclivity to buy ivory in high-risk segment of Chinese consumers from 54% to 26%. Among past ivory buyers, those who pledge definitely not to buy ivory in the future doubled from 33% to 66% after exposure to the IFAW ad campaign.

The torching of Kenya’s ivory stockpile in 1989 was a wake up call to the poaching crisis that more than halved the population of African elephants in a short twenty years. It led to CITES’ global ban on the international trade in elephant ivory.

However, repeated “one-off” ivory sales to Japan and China have broken the integrity of the global trade ban. IFAW investigations found that the 2008 sale in particular has spurred an increase in production and trade of ivory in China, further fueling demand. 

The existence of legal ivory markets confuses consumers and stimulate further demand for elephant ivory overall. Such parallel legal and illegal markets challenge control and enforcement efforts, providing cover and loopholes for illegal ivory to be “laundered.”

The growing momentum—generated by ivory destructions from countries along the entire trade chain from range to transit to consuming states—brings global attention to the poaching crisis again and again.

However, destruction of confiscated ivory needs policy support to have full effect. What needs to be destroyed is not only the blood-stained ivory but the lethal ivory trade.

As a key consumer country, the most significant contribution China, including Hong Kong can make to combat elephant poaching and ivory smuggling is by closing down ALL ivory markets, legal and illegal.

Surveys show ivory trade ban is supported by the Chinese public. For 60% of the ivory consumers, the most compelling reason to stop buying ivory is if buying ivory is illegal. This reason would also be made more compelling if backed up by a strong recommendation from a government leader.

Only by having clear and unambiguous laws combined with vigorous enforcement and meaningful punishment for violations can we stigmatize ivory consumption, which is essential to demand reduction.

There can be hope for the world’s wildlife and ecosystems only when we place more value on elephants alive than dead.


For more information about IFAW efforts in China, visit our campaign page.

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
President and Chief Executive Officer
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Elsayed Ahmed Mohamed, Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
Executive Vice President
Executive Vice President
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Pauline Verheij, Program Manager, Wildlife Crime
Program Manager, Wildlife Crime
Rikkert Reijnen, Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Country Representative, Germany
Country Representative, Germany
Staci McLennan, Director, EU Office
Director, EU Office
Tania McCrea-Steele, Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy