Forestry officials in Dongguan, a city in China’s southern Guangdong province, spent much of Monday feeding 6.1 tons of smuggled elephant tusks into a pair of industrial crushing machines. The ivory, which can fetch up to $2,000 a kilogram on the black market, was reduced to worthless crumbs and dust.
The large-scale public destruction of illegal ivory, a first for China, was meant to send a strong message to poachers as international concern grows over the killing of African elephants – but will it dissuade increasingly wealthy Chinese consumers with an appetite for rare animal products?
“Rising affluence and more open trade links between China and the rest of the world have fueled demand for scarce natural resources – anything from ivory to tortoises, shark fins and rosewood – over the past few years, wreaking havoc in many ecosystems and pushing many species to the brink,” wrote The New York Times.
China is the world’s largest market for illegal ivory, and Dongguan is considered a hub city for its distribution to others parts of the country. Yesterday’s event was widely publicized in Chinese state media, with government officials, foreign diplomats and environmentalists all in attendance. Many saw it as an important milestone for a nation that is often criticized for its economy-over-environment policies.
“This is a courageous and critical first step by China to elevate the important issue of wildlife trafficking and elephant poaching among its citizens and around the world,” Patrick Bergin, CEO of the African Wildlife Foundation, told Scientific American. “The Chinese government is to be commended for taking the issue seriously.”
But China’s legal ivory trade, coupled with relatively lax penalties for ivory traffickers and merchants, draw larger questions about the government’s commitment to wildlife reforms.
“Much of the ivory on the market in China is legal – bought from African governments selling off their stockpiles of seized tusks in 2008,” wrote The Telegraph. “But the continued demand also drives a trade in illicit ivory ‘laundered’ with fake provenance certificates.”
Elaborately carved ivory decorations are a popular gift in China, often exchanged between government officials or business partners. A survey of tusk-carving factories in four major Chinese cities found that 101 out of 158 were either unlicensed – or selling illegal ivory outright.
According to a report by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an estimated 22,000 African elephants were illegally killed in 2012.
“Current elephant poaching in Africa remains far too high, and could soon lead to local extinctions if the present killing rates continue,” said CITES Secretary-General John E. Scanlon.