Beijing's decision to destroy ivory a welcome step to saving the elephant

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 January, 2014, 5:33am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 January, 2014, 9:28am

The public destruction by the state of more than six tonnes of confiscated ivory is memorable for more than being a dramatic expression of China's support for the battle against an illegal ivory trade that could threaten extinction of the African elephant. It also recalls a 2007 study by the International Fund for Animal Welfare which found that 70 per cent of people in mainland China, the main market for smuggled African ivory, were unaware that for its tusks to be harvested, the largest living terrestrial animal has to be slaughtered.

The ceremonial crushing of up to US$12 million worth of ornaments and elephant tusks, before an international audience in Dongguan , Guangdong, hopefully had an educational value in this respect.

Education could be the ultimate weapon in destroying the market for the heartless and often inhumane trade of elephant hunters and ivory traffickers.

The extraordinary scene represented a welcome policy shift by Beijing, which has previously stored confiscated ivory without further action, including 16 tonnes known to have been confiscated in the past three years. It follows China's recent joint vow with 30 Asian and African nations to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to poaching syndicates, including tough sentences for wildlife crimes and boosting law enforcement with seizure of assets and extradition. Another notable victory for conservationists was the granting of a High Court order in Hong Kong, both a transit port and destination for ivory, for the return of smuggled carved ivory and rhino horn to South Africa, for use in court as forensic evidence against illegal hunters.

Beijing's high-profile effort is to be applauded. It should be sustained through more stringent crackdowns and education of the younger generation. A cultural backlash of distaste for the ivory trade could be the best prospect for survival of the wild African elephant, whose numbers have been slashed from more than 1.3 million to fewer than half a million in 35 years.