Thick clouds of fine, choking white dust fill the winter afternoon air as a giant rockcrushing machine rumbles on. Coughing and spluttering, I struggle to hold my gaze as the spectacle is lost behind swirling clouds.
A cascade of crushed ivory is spewed out by a giant blue machine used more often to crush stones to mix with bitumen than grind up parts of an endangered species from another continent.
Surrounded by conservationists and journalists looking on in deafened awe, wildlife officials in hard hats and highvisibility vests load an excavator with large pieces from a giant pile of elephant tusks and with carved ivory statuettes, trinkets and jewellery. The excavator shuttles back and forth, from tusk pile to rock crusher, feeding the metallic beast as it feasts upon what remains of countless herds of elephants.
This was the scene Hong Kong schoolgirls Lucy Skrine, 11, and Christina Seigrist, eight, hoped to witness in their hometown when they started a petition (bit.ly/BanHKIvoryTrade) through online activist network Avaaz in September to have the city’s stockpile of more than 33 tonnes of confiscated ivory destroyed. It was the scenario they wanted to achieve with the 10,000 signatures they asked for.
But this is not Hong Kong. The rock crusher is at work in Denver, Colorado, where it is crushing the United States government’s six-tonne stockpile of ivory seized from tourists and smugglers at the country’s land borders and airports since the 1980s.
Wildlife officials say it is hard to estimate exactly, but they believe the total being crushed here amounts to the tusks of between 1,000 and 2,000 elephants – a fraction of the number of dead animals represented by Hong Kong’s stockpile.
In June, the Philippine government crushed and burnt its five-tonne stockpile of confiscated ivory; and since 1992, three elephant range states in Africa – Zambia, Kenya and Gabon – have destroyed by incineration their seized ivory stockpiles. The five nations that have now destroyed their confiscated ivory stockpiles have (along with the Indian state of Maharashtra and France, which has just announced it is to follow suit) sent an unequivocal message to poachers in Africa, ivory dealers everywhere and consumers in China that the trade will not be tolerated by their governments.
“If Manila can do it, and Denver can do it, why can’t Hong Kong follow their lead?” asks Lucy.
The girls are protesting against what they describe as a brutal trade in blood ivory going on right under the noses of Hong Kong officials, because here the legal market for ivory has been providing cover for a parallel illegal market for decades. Retailers are allowed to sell ivory in Hong Kong as long as it has come from pre-1989-ban stocks or the 108 tonnes four African nations sold to China in 2008, and has been carved in the city. There is no way to ascertain whether a particular piece of ivory in a shop conforms to these stipulations or not, though.
Their petition captured the public imagination. Supporters joined forces to form Hong Kong for Elephants, an NGO whose members staged a vigil for the dead outside a Kowloon branch of Chinese Arts & Crafts – thought to be the city’s major ivory retailer – on October 4, as part of the International March for Elephants.
The demand for ivory in China is now so strong that poaching in Africa has reached unprecedented levels, with some conservationists warning that unless something is done – and fast – elephants will be extinct in the wild within a decade. The US government and conservation body WWF believe that about 36,000 elephants are being killed each year for their tusks. That’s a devastating 96 per day, or one every 15 minutes.
“By crushing its contraband ivory tusks and trinkets, the US government is sending a signal that it will not tolerate the senseless killing of elephants,” said WWF president and chief executive Carter Roberts in a US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) press release. “Other countries need to join the US, Gabon, Kenya and the Philippines to take a stand against the crime syndicates behind this slaughter.”
US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell echoes Roberts’ sentiments in the release: “Rising demand for ivory is fuelling a renewed and horrific slaughter of elephants in Africa, threatening remaining populations across the continent. We encourage other nations to join us both in destroying confiscated ivory stockpiles and taking other actions to combat wildlife crime.”
The logic behind the destruction of ivory is that, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) agreement, any government-seized ivory would never be made available to the market, anyway. Therefore, its destruction sends a powerful message to traffickers while having no impact on the overall supply, and thus not creating an incentive for poaching.
One aspect of the stockpile crush in the US troubles some wildlife groups, however. The USFWS, which organised the Denver crush, stopped short of incineration, ostensibly out of concerns about emissions. So, in effect, it has left itself some unfinished business.
Wildlife officials are instead planning to give the crushed ivory to the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which will then divide it up and send it to member zoos across the country, to be made into elephant conservation memorials. In so doing, the USFWS will pass the security headache – and cost – of maintaining safe custody of the crushed ivory to individual zoos. Since ivory is worth even more than gold by weight, though, it’s hard to imagine how some pieces will not go missing in the process.
“The decision to donate crushed ivory to American zoos is misguided,” says Joyce Poole, co-director of ElephantVoices and a renowned Kenya-based elephant behavioural scientist and advocate. “A monument to slaughtered elephants to remind people of the terrible consequences of trading in the body parts of animals is important, but using elephant ivory is in bad taste. Would we use human body parts in a memorial to those men and women who have succumbed to war?
“Furthermore, the chunks of ivory are still large enough for criminals to remove and make into small items of jewellery for resale. The crushed ivory should be incinerated and put beyond reach.”
It is also not entirely inconceivable that the AZA may one day be the subject of a buyout similar to that in September of Smithfield, America’s biggest pork producer, which merged with Shuanghui, its counterpart in China. If the zoos association were to one day be rescued by a Chinese white knight, all its assets, including any elephant memorials made of crushed ivory, would probably become the property of the new owner, to do with as it pleased. It is therefore possible that, notwithstanding any of the trade bans currently being lobbied for in the US Congress, the market could become flooded with tiny gravel-sized trinkets, such as the ivory stud earrings that retail for HK$480 a pair in shops on Hollywood Road, made with the ivory crushed in Denver.
“If the crushed ivory ends up as small, usable, raw pieces, there is the risk that this can be reused and so, perhaps, a more thorough means of destruction such as incineration may be necessary,” says Sharon Kwok, a Hong Kong-based conservationist and executive director of the AquaMeridian Conservation and Education Foundation.
Other conservationists are satisfied to adopt a less purist approach, however. “Crushing is a symbolic measure,” says Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “[The actions of ] both the US and Philippines … are particularly important for Hong Kong, as Hong Kong is not just a pure consumer region, it’s a transit region as well. Hong Kong is a gateway for mainland China [and it] is really important for China to follow suit.
“If the Hong Kong authorities are able to incinerate the ivory without emissions, then sure, but if they are crushing it and we’re worried that the little bits and pieces will have nowhere to go, then maybe the officials can dump it in the sea when it is crushed. It can be done in really deep sea.”
The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) has, in fact, already conducted a successful trial burn. Last year, it incinerated three tonnes of confiscated ivory in the extreme high temperature environment of the Tsing Yi Chemical Waste Treatment Centre. Not only did the trial burn give off zero emissions, it even generated power.
When asked, a department spokesman indicates that a Hong Kong crush is not entirely out of the question: “Since 2003, seizure of ivory amounts to about 32 tonnes, which makes up the bulk of the ivory stockpile in Hong Kong. The AFCD has been exploring destruction as a means to dispose of the confiscated ivory, [as] permitted under the Cites guidelines.
“When we come to a more concrete proposal, the Endangered Species Advisory Committee, a [local] statutory advisory body on protection of endangered species, will be consulted.”
All eyes in the elephant conservation world are now on Hong Kong – with its huge stockpile, will it crush, crush and burn, or do nothing?
Unfortunately, there seems to be a paralysis in the city. With awareness levels roughly where they were 10 years ago on the shark-fin issue, the current poaching crisis is just not on the radar of the average Hongkonger. Even WWF Hong Kong does not have an active ivory-demand reduction campaign.
Activists fear that if Hong Kong, which plays a large role in the ivory trade – not only as a major transit point for the mainland but also as a large consumer in its own right – does not wake up to this pressing issue soon, it could be too late.
As Lucy and Christina’s petition approaches the 10,000-signature mark, another youngster, Hong Kong International School Year Six student Nellie Shute, 11, has also taken action.
Nellie successfully lobbied her school principal to return to the AFCD the ivory tusks and carved ivory pieces it had loaned to her school under what she believes is the misguided Endangered Species Specimen Donation Programme.
“The tusk and ivory carvings on display in my school were not educating students, they were reinforcing the idea that it’s acceptable to display ivory as artwork,” says Nellie. “Now my school has agreed to send them back with a petition signed by students asking for the ivory stockpile to be destroyed.
“I’m trying to make change because I refuse to believe that’s the future. I don’t want to tell the next generation that there used to be these magnificent creatures, but human greed ended their existence and we did nothing to stop it.”
On the subject of elephant conservation, it seems, Hong Kong’s schoolchildren are putting the city’s adults to shame.