Incineration shows Hong Kong is serious about ending trade in ivory

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 May, 2014, 3:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 May, 2014, 8:33am

So long as Hong Kong continued to stockpile confiscated ivory instead of destroying it, the city sent the wrong message to people prepared to kill an African elephant in order to harvest its tusks, and to people who traffic the ivory internationally. It gave them reason to believe that a strategically placed port was not really serious about disowning its perceived role as a hub for the distribution of illegal ivory to China and other countries in Asia, where it is prized as a source of wisdom, a sign of nobility and symbol of wealth. There should be no misunderstanding now after the high-profile destruction yesterday of an initial 1.2 tonnes of the city's ivory stockpile of more than 30 tonnes at the Tsing Yi chemical waste treatment plant. The incineration was timely, following a claim by wildlife trade watchdog Traffic that interceptions of shipments and trade data showed that ivory was either being routed through or sourced from Hong Kong.

It was prompted by China, which recently destroyed more than six tonnes of ivory in an expression of support for the battle against an illegal trade that could threaten the extinction of the African elephant. Until recently, a lack of consensus on the Endangered Species Advisory Committee, consisting of businesspeople and researchers, had resulted in a mounting stockpile, seen as having research potential. Local activists say the city has now signalled it is no longer a viable trade route. This follows the African Elephant Summit in Botswana, in which 30 African and Asian participants, including China and Hong Kong, vowed to get tough on ivory smuggling.

The alternative to incineration - secure storage - does not send the same strong message, and requires diligent custody to ensure that the ivory does not find its way back onto the market. Because there has been no sustained increase in seizures in recent years, local officials were not convinced the city had become a regional hub for the illegal trade. But how much actually passes through Hong Kong can only be guessed at, since we only know of interceptions of shipments consigned by increasingly resourceful syndicates.