By Aislinn Laing
More than six metric tons of tusks, ivory ornaments and carvings were fed into crushing machines by forestry and customs officials in southern Guangdong province, where much of China's ivory trade is focused.
The ivory came from shipments from Africa intercepted by customs officers as well as from carving factories and shops in China.
It represented just a fraction of the illegal ivory China – the world's biggest market for the product – holds in stockpiles, the government said.
One customs official said that its smuggling in to the country was increasing by 10 per cent each year.
Leading conservation groups have applauded the ivory destruction and say they hope the gesture was the first of many.
John Scanlon, Secretary General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the global group tasked with cracking down on the practice, said he hoped it would raise public awareness about the illegal ivory trade, which is thought to cause the death of 35,000 elephants in Africa each year. "China is sending a very powerful message both domestically, to the Chinese people, and internationally, that it is not prepared to tolerate the illegal trade in elephant ivory," he said.
Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the director of Save the Elephants, said Monday's move was "a significant symbolic step towards saving Africa's elephants", adding that China could change its citizens' taste for wildlife products, as Japan and Britain had done.
Ivory has been prized as a safe investment by the country's large and growing middle-class and exchanged between government officials or business partners when deals are struck.
Much of the ivory on the market in China is legal – bought from African governments selling off their stockpiles of seized tusks in 2008. But the continued demand also drives a trade in illicit ivory "laundered" with fake provenance certificates.
In the past year, China has come under concerted international pressure to stem the illegal wildlife trade, particularly since it emerged that poaching may be funding terrorists and fuelling conflicts in Africa.
Mr Douglas-Hamilton said that its leadership should be given credit for a "great shift" in recent years from its previous refusal to even discuss the problem.
Yao Ming, a famous Chinese basketball player, will this month appear alongside the Duke of Cambridge and David Beckham in a public service message broadcast on China's main television stations about the evils of poaching.
Stiff penalties were recently handed down to eight Chinese citizens for smuggling and an article in the Southern Weekly, a major Chinese newspaper, about the impact of the ivory trade went viral.
However, the government still receives hefty revenues from selling its official stockpile to licensed carving factories.
China's leadership also appears unwilling or unable to crack down on illegal traders – a survey by the International Fund for Animal Welfare in 2011 found that out of 158 shops and carving factories in four major Chinese cities, 101 were not licensed, or were selling smuggled ivory.
It also remains unclear what will happen to the ivory crushed on Monday. Some will be disposed of and some displayed in a museum exhibit but that the rest will be "preserved", state-run China National Radio reported. The powder can be used as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.