By Austin Ramzy
Updated, 5:12 a.m. ET| The Hong Kong government began destroying nearly 30 tons of confiscated ivory on Thursday, a move conservationists said would send a powerful message about the Chinese territory’s resolve to end a trade that had contributed to widespread poaching of elephants.
“It’s a very big deal,” said Alex Hofford, a co-founder of the environmental group Hong Kong for Elephants and a consultant for WildAid. “The Hong Kong government, by committing to destroy the ivory in January and actually doing it today, is sending a really strong signal to traders and consumers in Hong Kong and China and around the world that the government is no longer tolerating the illegal ivory trade.”
Ivory has traditionally been esteemed in China for making chopsticks, seals and ornamental carvings. Those uses have helped drive widespread killing of elephants, and wildlife experts say that trade has put the future of the species at risk.
“It’s time we all recognized that a rather grotesque desire for an animal’s teeth is resulting in the near-extinction of elephants half a world away,” Patrick Bergin, chief executive of African Wildlife Foundation, said in a statement. “The message behind Hong Kong’s ivory burn is clear: The illicit ivory market must be — and will be — shut down for good. Anything less will be not only ecologically devastating for many of Africa’s landscapes but also, simply, morally unconscionable.”
The move to destroy the ivory follows similar efforts in the United States, the Philippines and mainland China. In January, the Chinese authorities in the city of Dongguan, about 50 miles northwest of Hong Kong, destroyed six tons of ivory.
Hong Kong is destroying the ivory by incinerating it. The government says it can burn about three tons a month, meaning the entire stockpile of 29.6 tons will be destroyed in about one or two years.
While objects made from elephant and rhinoceros tusks have traditionally been prized in China, a campaign by environmentalists has begun to change public perceptions. The retired basketball star Yao Ming has appeared in advertisements showing the carcasses of elephants poached for their tusks.
In Hong Kong, three major retailers have announced in recent weeks that they will no longer sell ivory products. Chinese Arts & Crafts, Wing On Department Store and Yue Hwa Chinese Products Emporium were the three leading sellers of ivory in Hong Kong.
Trafficking of ivory is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or Cites. Now conservation groups are pushing for a ban on retail sales in Hong Kong. As long as it remains legal to sell ivory, visitors to Hong Kong, particularly from the Chinese mainland, will buy objects and carry them out in their luggage, Mr. Hofford said.
“The legal trade is providing cover for illegal trade,” he said. “The only way to shut down that illegal trade is to shut down the legal trade.”