The Duke of Cambridge wants to strip all the ivory from Buckingham Palace and destroy it, The Independent on Sunday can reveal, in a move conservationists hailed as "extremely significant" in the fight against elephant poaching.
Some 1,200 items containing ivory are listed in the royal collection, including a throne from India that incorporates elephant-ivory plaques. The move would seek to encourage other heads of states to give up their ivory stocks and collections.
The revelation comes days after the Duke attended the world's largest ever conference on the illegal wildlife trade, which called for an end to the £12bn trade in animals and their parts, including ivory. At least 45 tons of ivory were seized in 2013, believed to be the biggest annual haul in a quarter of a century.
"It's difficult to imagine a stronger symbol of the horrors of ivory than Buckingham Palace publicly destroying its own," said Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith. "Good for Prince William for pushing this."
It is not the first time Prince William has spoken up for elephants; last week he launched a new coalition, United for Wildlife, made up of seven organisations, which is determined to end the illegal wildlife trade. He said then: "The forces that are currently destroying some of the world's most endangered species are sophisticated and powerful, but this week we are seeing the creation of an equally powerful alliance, coming together to help fight them."
The next day, 46 governments attended the London Conference. They pledged, among other things, to renounce the use of any products from species threatened by extinction, to support the commercial prohibition on the international trade in elephant ivory until the survival of elephants is no longer threatened by poaching, and to encourage countries to destroy their illegal stockpiles of ivory. They also urged the private sector to adopt a "zero-tolerance" policy on giving or receiving products made from species threatened with extinction.
Veteran primatologist Jane Goodall, who turns 80 this year, told The IoS that she had spoken to Prince William and he had told her he would "like to see all the ivory owned by Buckingham Palace destroyed". The Royal Family's extensive collection includes fans, miniatures and furniture – such as the ivory throne from India, dated 1851, which belonged to Queen Victoria. A Palace spokesperson said they had received a small number of items since 1947 but said they were "primarily official gifts, which would have been agreed in full knowledge of relevant legislation."
The Prince of Wales has reportedly asked for ivory items at Clarence House and Highgrove to be put out of sight over the last few years. But experts said destruction would send a "powerful" message to the world. "It would be a demonstration of them putting their money where their mouth is. It would be extremely significant, and visual, and might help Britons hand in their ivory, illegal or legal," said Dr Paula Kahumbu, executive director of Kenyan-based charity Wildlife Direct.
"Ninety nine per cent of ivory that is in people's hands comes from elephants being gunned down. Handing it in shows: 'I'm going to wash my hands of this despicable business.' It shows the royals are not above taking a practical, personal action. It would probably result in similar support from other countries."
Virginia McKenna, actress and founder of the Born Free Foundation, agreed. She said the move would be "amazing" and confirmed that her organisation would be happy to accept the stock and help destroy it. Her son, Will Travers, CEO of the foundation, added that all ivory should be properly inventoried in consultation with the Foreign Office, and the Department for the Environment. "It would send a powerful, high-level statement. If ivory is 'zero-tolerance' then it should be from top to bottom," he added.
Simon Pope, from the World Society for the Protection of Animals, said it would be more than just a symbolic act. "In taking this strong stand, potentially thousands more people will follow their lead, making the appealing notion of owning ivory a thing of the past in modern Britain. Big gestures like this are hugely important in the fight to end the suffering and extinction of elephants," he said.
But art critic Brian Sewell, a keen lover of elephants, said that destruction of art or crafts, was a "menacing response" to the problem of poaching. "We have to recognise that [these items] exist. Ivory was a treasured material that was worked on by craftsmen of the highest order during the Renaissance …. It's pointless. I can't see the connection between saving elephants and destroying works of art made centuries ago."
Then there is the sentimental value of such works. Goodall supports the destruction of stockpiles of illegal ivory, but said it could be difficult to "ask people to destroy something very precious to them". Especially, if it were handed down by older generations, as is often the case in places like China.
Yet the debate continues. The International Fund for Animal Welfare crushed hundreds of items of ivory handed in by the public last week. Presenter and conservationist Chris Packham, who supported the crush, said: "Sadly, every piece of ivory represents a dead elephant."
When approached by The IoS, the Cabinet Office did not know who had the authority to destroy items from the royal collection. A spokesperson for the collection said it "is held in trust by the Sovereign for her successors and the nation – it is not owned by a private individual." But she added: "Any matters relating to the royal collection would therefore be a matter for the Sovereign."
A spokesman for the Duke of Cambridge refused to either confirm or deny private comments Prince William is said to have made.
The Independent on Sunday, along with its sister titles, is running an appeal for Kenyan-based charity Space for Giants, an organisation determined to protect Africa's elephants.
Additional reporting by Zander Swinburne