The Chinese government has destroyed 6.15 tonnes of seized elephant ivory, in a move suggesting that China is firmly behind international action to address the illegal ivory trade. Gabon, the Philippines and the USA have all recently destroyed ivory stockpiles, while France has also signalled its intention to do so too.
“The destruction of seized ivory makes an important public statement that, in conjunction with other government-led efforts to reduce demand, has the potential to have a significant impact on the illegal market for ivory,” said Tom Milliken, an ivory trade expert for TRAFFIC, an organisation that campaigns against the illegal wildlife trade.
Although China has a legal ivory market based on stocks that pre-date the 1989 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) ivory trade ban, under CITES rules, seized ivory cannot be used for commercial purposes.
China has previously indicated it is prepared to clamp down hard on the illegal ivory trade: the ivory destruction takes place just weeks after eight Chinese citizens were convicted and sentenced to imprisonment in east China’s eastern Anhui Province for smuggling a total of 3.2 tonnes of ivory.
Fan Zhiyong, Head of WWF China’s Species Programme said: “WWF believes that destroying seized ivory is a signal of the government’s commitment to enhance law enforcement against illegal ivory trade that will support international action against elephant poaching and illegal wildlife trade.”
“Tens of thousands of African Elephants are being killed by poachers because of the high demand for ivory. China’s gesture is a solemn commitment by the government to cleanse the Chinese ivory market and to guarantee the survival of Africa’s elephants.”
The high poaching levels are mirrored by the ivory trafficking figures compiled through the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) database, which TRAFFIC manages on behalf of the CITES Conference of the Parties.
Large-scale ivory seizures typically indicate the participation of organised crime; provisional data for 2013 includes 18 such seizures yielding more than 41.6 tonnes of ivory. Analysis of ETIS data has identified China as the major destination for ivory in Asia.
Although the amount destroyed is far less than China’s estimated total stockpile of over 45 tonnes, the move has still been welcomed. Joe Walson of the Wildlife Conservation Society told The Guardian that the importance of the destruction "is not its direct impact on the market price of ivory (zero) or the safety of wild elephants in Africa tomorrow (negligible); its importance lies in it being the manifestation of a very real debate within the Chinese government on this issue."
According to Tom Miliken, “China’s actions, more than those of any other country, have the potential to reverse the rising trends of elephant poaching and illegal ivory trafficking.”