Will crushing ivory curb poaching?

China ivory China's destruction of seized ivory is seen as a significant step against the illegal trade

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China has become the latest country to carry out a public destruction of seized ivory, crushing some six tonnes of tusks and other pieces at a ceremony in Guangdong.

Last November, the United States crushed around five tonnes in a similar exercise.

Ivory has also been publicly destroyed at events in Kenya, Gabon and the Philippines.

These public displays of disaffection with ivory have been designed to curb the illegal trade in tusks that saw around 22,000 elephants slaughtered in 2012 according to CITES - the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species.

Demand driven

Because China is the world's biggest destination for illegal ivory, the latest move is even more significant according to CITES secretary-general John Scanlon.

"China is sending an unequivocal message - both domestically and internationally - that it will not tolerate this illegal trade," he said.

"We hope that the underlying messages being conveyed through today's public crush of seized ivory are heard loud and clear by anyone who is involved in this highly destructive illicit activity."

Campaigners have also welcomed the move, saying that destroying ivory would help to cut demand for tusks.

But this is a very complex business.

Although there has been a ban on the international trade in ivory since 1990, legal sales of ivory products continue to take place in the US and in China.

To make matters more tricky, there have been two legally sanctioned international sales of ivory stocks in 1999 and 2008. The first involved Japanese traders buying ivory direct from Africa. The second saw sales to China as well.

china ivory Some critics are concerned that destroying stocks of ivory gives an incentive to poachers

According to Tom Milliken from Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring organisation, the way that China has handled these purchases has exacerbated the problem of poaching.

"The legal source of ivory remains in the hands of the Chinese Arts and Crafts Association. Although they purchased it for less than $150 a kg, they have been selling it at highly inflated prices in China.

"I think what we are seeing is that the black market price undercuts that legally controlled system and that has produced a very perverse incentive for manufacturers to source cheaper illegal ivory in other places."

Speculating on scarcity

There are also worries that simply destroying stocks of ivory only encourages poachers to believe that scarcity will drive up prices, thereby giving a greater incentive to kill elephants.

"If we don't understand the role of speculators in the trade, the destruction could be counter productive in the long run," said Tom Milliken.

"But I think where we stand right now, the public relations role of these acts is symbolically a good thing."

The hope is that China can turn a corner on its demand for ivory - 30 years ago Japan was importing 500 tonnes of ivory a year, leading to 25,000 elephant deaths. Now it is using about 5% of that amount.

But if the middle class continues to grow, and education programmes are not successful in changing habits, Tom Milliken is worried that Chinese demand alone could see the elephant's extinction.

"There just aren't enough elephants remaining to sustain a constant growth in ivory demand in that country," he said.

And for some speculators, that is the optimum position.

If the elephants were wiped out, there would be large stockpiles of a scarce substance that couldn't be replaced.

And it's likely that if the elephants went, the restrictions on ivory sales would also go.

Derailing these macabre calculations will be critical in the survival of the species.

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Matt McGrath Article written by Matt McGrath Matt McGrath Environment correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Destruction is useless, like burning books to get rid of religion, it don't work.

    The only way to combat the trade is education, raising living standards for the people who do the dirty dangerous work of poaching the animal in the first place and sanctioned trade in stocks captured from illegal trade to raise money to fund these programs. crushing it does NOTHING but put on a show for the press

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    What happened to the programs where the tusks of living elephants were sprayed with red dyes so that the ivory would have been valueless in monetary terms and therefore not worth killing the elephants for?

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Just shoot anyone connected to the trade.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    'Is it possible to dart an elephant and saw off the tusks without causing the animal harm? If the elephant has no tusks why poach it?'

    I don't know but it was tried with rhino horns. One account said that the poachers still killed the hornless rhinos so that they would not waste time tracking them again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    This is nothing more than a pointless propaganda exercise. It reduces the available supply which has the effect of pushing the price up and encouraging more poachers to kill more elephants. It would be better if the government sold the siezed ivory and used the funds to pay for more game wardens and better facilities to protect the remaining elephants.


Comments 5 of 32


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