By Kelvin Chan
When Hong Kong intercepted yet another huge shipment of illegal African ivory in early October, it added to a growing headache for authorities: What exactly do you do with one of the world's biggest stockpiles of elephant tusks?
Government warehouses in the former British colony are holding more than 30 metric tons of ivory seized since 2008, as customs agents intercept a surging amount of endangered animal products being smuggled to mainland China to meet demand from the country's newly wealthy.
The latest shipment, 189 tusks worth $1.5 million hidden in soybean sacks in a shipping container, was one of four major busts this year.
Ivory is known as "white gold" because of the rich prices it commands on the black market. Hong Kong has put values of between $1,000 and $2,000 a kilogram on ivory it seized this year. A 2011 report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare said buyers in China were paying up to $2,400 a kilogram.
Conservation groups, worried the ivory pile presents a target for theft and fails to send a signal that Hong Kong is serious about cracking down on the trade, urge the government to destroy it. Authorities are resisting, instead preferring to dole out small amounts to schools to raise conservation awareness.
"As long as that ivory is kept anywhere, it will always be a temptation for people to get their hands on it," said Grace Ge Gabriel, the fund's regional director.
IFAW and 15 other animal welfare and conservation groups wrote to Hong Kong's leader and customs commissioner after the October seizure, urging them to follow the example of countries that destroy confiscated ivory.
Because the ivory trade is illegal, its size worldwide is hard to pin down. Samuel K. Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, calculated it was worth $264 million from 2000-2010. He said the amount now is likely to be far higher based on the soaring amount confiscated globally. More....