Ivory haul poses 16-tonne headache for Hong Kong's conservation officers
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What do you do with 16 tonnes of elephant tusks?
Conservation officers wrestling with that problem have shelved - for the time being - the idea of incinerating the growing stock of illegal ivory seizures after opposition from their advisers.
The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department keeps the tusks at secret government premises. The department would not give an exact figure but customs figures showed the city has confiscated at least 16 tonnes of ivory since 2008.
Some 1,800 elephants would have been killed to provide such a haul. Its value - based on the 2010 price of US$700 per kilogram - is about HK$87 million. But prices are likely to have risen since then, and the stock is expected to keep growing as the trade is booming and Hong Kong is a favoured transit point.
The department confirmed to the South China Morning Post that it had considered burning the ivory at over 1,000 degrees Celsius at the chemical waste treatment plant in Tsing Yi.
"We have dropped this for now, but it doesn't mean it will not be raised in the future," a spokeswoman said.
It is understood officers had discussed the incineration option last year with its advisers on endangered species. Most of the advisers had reservations about the idea, fearing it could be a publicity disaster.
One of the advisers, Dr Chu Lee Man of Chinese University, felt destruction was not appropriate. "It is wasteful to burn the tusks. Instead we should reuse them for good purposes like education," he said.
The spokeswoman said they had studied other disposal methods but found that options like land-filling or sea dumping were neither feasible nor practical.
It is understood the department had also conducted a small-scale pilot incineration test last year and confirmed the method was feasible. It believed incineration was a cost-effective solution that could destroy stock and avoid the possibility they might be recovered one day.
Managing forfeited ivory has proved a challenge to many nations. In the Philippines, a report in 2005 said a significant quantity of ivory from three seizures totalling seven tonnes disappeared in government custody.
At least one country, according to the department, had used its navy to dump ivory in the deep sea.
Dr Richard Thomas, from the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic, said African states such as Kenya and Gabon burnt ivory after stock audits. Gabon spent 24 hours to burn 4.8 tonnes of ivory last June.
"Destroying ivory in this way means it is out of harm's way - ivory stockpiles have had a habit of going missing, presumably ending up in illegal trade."
Thomas said signatories at a meeting of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, on Tuesday agreed that countries or territories must report their ivory stocks each year.
"Obviously this will lead to much greater clarity and transparency in who owns what, and reduce the likelihood of more ivory going walkabouts from ivory stockpiles," he said.
About 30 schools in Hong Kong have been offered a small amount of ivory for educational purposes. But using more ivory in this way raises security issues.
Returning the ivory to their home countries is also not a viable option as these nations face a similar dilemma of handling the seizures and they could again fall into the wrong hands.
Some have suggested crafting ivory for conservation education, but this raises fears that such displays might fuel more demand for the products.