In an unprecedented move to show support against the global ivory trade, China crushed 6.1 tonnes of illegally stockpiled ivory in Dongguan city, near Guangzhou, on Monday.
Every day, 100 African elephants are killed illegally for their ivory. China is the final destination for most of this contraband ivory and a single tusk can fetch more than £10,000 on the Chinese black market. Worth around £6bn annually, the trade funds terrorist organisations such as al-Shabaab, which recently attacked the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi.
In China, where the government plays a crucial role in influencing consumer demand, crushing this large stockpile sends a clear signal that it is clamping down on the illegal ivory trade.
Jianguo He, who has worked against the ivory trade for 12 years with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw), said witnessing the event was bittersweet: “When you see six tonnes of ivory, you can’t help but think ‘how many elephants was that?’
“What did those elephants die for? Ivory is not a necessity, it is simply a luxury item that people don’t need. Every ivory product means an elephant was killed. That means a loss of life and a loss of biodiversity. This is not art any more. People are exploiting nature for all it can give.
“At the same time, it is encouraging to see that the Chinese government is taking concrete action. The destruction indicates cross-departmental co-operation and a willingness to address the issue of ivory demand.”
Mr Jianguo explained that crushing ivory was not only a symbolic action, but also had practical benefits: “It means it will never return to the market and create new demand. In 2006, China applied for a one-off sale of ivory from legal African stockpiles.
“This created a new demand from China’s new elite and since then elephant deaths in Africa have increased dramatically,” he said.
“Maintaining stockpiles is also very expensive and there is also the risk of theft from the stockpiles which fuels more demand for ivory.”
The event follows a front-page story in the Chinese newspaper Southern Weekly last year which highlighted China’s role in the ivory trade and reached over one million online views within a week.
A statement released by the Chinese government said: “Wildlife trafficking has become a serious problem and the illegal trade of ivory and wildlife products is increasing.”
The initiative, launched by the China Wildlife Conservation Association, was held “for the purpose of raising public awareness, and demonstrating the Chinese government’s resolve to combat wildlife trafficking”.
John Scanlon, of Cites (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), oversaw the ceremony and said: “We hope that the underlying messages being conveyed through today’s public crush of ivory are heard loud and clear by anyone who is involved in this highly destructive illicit activity.”
He said the government’s message was reinforced by “the increased numbers of seizures, prosecutions and convictions in China – including the imposition of high monetary fines and custodial sentences on those trading in elephant ivory”.
The ivory crush comes after the United States destroyed six tonnes of stockpiled ivory in November last year. However, unlike the US, which destroyed its entire stockpile, 6.1 tonnes only represents a small fraction of China’s seized ivory. Some commentators remain unconvinced about China’s sincerity to follow through and combat the ivory trade after this event.
Mary Rice, from the Environmental Investigation Agency, pointed out: “Disposing of contraband ivory carries little meaning while the authorities are actively promoting a legal market which they claim is regulated and controlled through a registration and ID card system that clearly is not working.
“Mixed messages to consumers and confusing and complicated rules and regulations for enforcement personnel only serve to provide laundering mechanisms for illegal ivory to enter the market.”
Andrea Crosta, of the Elephant Action League, said: “We think that this ceremony is just a public relations exercise to ease the pressure from the international community.”
The Independent’s Christmas appeal this year supports Space for Giants, an organisation which puts boots on the ground in Kenya to stop poachers from killing the elephants.