By Victoria Turk
Hong Kong’s plans to burn a huge stockpile of seized ivory began today, with 1.2 tons of the stash incinerated in a ceremonial start to the project.
With a total of 29.6 metric tons, the incineration—which will take place in batches of three tons over about a year—is the largest destruction of ivory so far, following on from similar acts in countries including China, the US, and France.
When the city announced its plans in January, it stated the reasons for disposing of the ivory—seized after ending up in the city through illegal trade—as the “management burden” and “security risk” of the forfeited stockpile. But the obvious major reason for destroying the goods is to prevent the risk of any of the seized goods making it back onto the market and take a clear stand against the the practice.
For that reason, the ceremony is really more important than the act itself. As Motherboard’s Derek Mead has pointed out previously, destroying stockpiles won’t immediately deter poachers or kill the market for ivory; it’s about sending a message.
That’s particularly important for Hong Kong, where Brian Adams, a Hong Kong-based consultant for WildAid told me that the market for ivory remains disconcertingly strong despite what should be a dwindling supply of legal products (there’s a legal market for ivory products from before it was banned in 1989).
“Hong Kong is really a hub of the ivory trade, and some of the information that we’re looking at right now shows that the projected supply of ivory that is traded within Hong Kong legally should be running quite low by now. However, that amount of ivory is actually not declining at the rate that has been predicted,” he said.
WildAid is looking into suggestions that Hong Kong’s legal ivory trade may therefore be covering an illegal trade. The problem is, of course, that it’s impossible to know from looking at a piece of ivory when it dates back to, and any certification is forgeable. The trade within Hong Kong can also impact that in other countries; CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora) has recognised the city as an “important transit place” for the global trade of ivory.
While the destruction of the stockpile has been hailed as a powerful statement that illegal trade won’t be tolerated and that ivory should not be considered a valuable product, some campaigners want to see all trade of ivory banned. As long as there’s a legal market, they argue, illegal trade will continue. Ahead of the incineration, the Wall Street Journal yesterday reported that three companies committed to no longer selling ivory, which is certainly a step in the right direction—but until all trade is legislated against, there will be a market.
You might think that the destruction of so much ivory could lead to an increase in demand, but Adams explained that’s not the case, as the stockpile has long been off the market. He likened it to the illegal drugs trade. “When heroin is seized and pulled off the streets, it’s not reintroduced to the market,” he said. “It also doesn’t impact the supply or demand by its destruction because it’s already been removed from the market.”
Overall, these acts are expected to decrease demand, again because of the awareness raised. They follow a successful model in China to reduce the trade of shark fin. Despite the popularity of shark fin in Asia, an awareness campaign around the endangered species saw consumption drop by 50 to 70 percent.
WildAid is expecting to see a similar positive impact on the ivory trade after the high profile crushes and burns around the world very soon. “Usually with these campaigns we see some very serious effects around two years,” he said. Reducing the value of ivory in consumers' eyes should then reduce the appeal to traders—and ultimately, of course, cut down on poaching in the first place.
As John Scanlon, secretary-general of CITES put it at today’s event, when it comes to the illegal ivory trade, “the return on the 'investment' will most likely be imprisonment, heavy fines, and seized assets.”