What to do with stockpile of seized ivory remains a dilemma for government

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 3:56am

More than six months after the government scrapped plans to incinerate its ever-growing stockpile of illicit ivory, conservation officials are still struggling to deal with the estimated 16 tonnes of elephant tusks seized since 2008.

New figures show that 500kg of ivory has been given to schools for educational purposes since the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department decided donations would be a good way to dispose of the contraband.

But with just 3 per cent of the inventory leaving government hands this way, questions have been raised over whether school donations are the best answer as more ivory is seized, placing further pressure on the storage and security of the tusks.

Last year, members of the Endangered Species Advisory Committee rejected incineration and in February, the government agreed - even though this went against its own finding that incineration was an effective way to get rid of the ivory.

Committee chairman Paul Shin Kam-shing said he would be happy to return to the issue if the department pushed for it.

"I can't recall an urgent sentiment among members on the matter and I don't feel there's an urgency to look into the issue again," Shin said.

The group met a fortnight ago and discussed the most recent seizure on August 7 of more than 1,000 tusks, the fourth shipment of ivory intercepted this year.

"Now that it's on the agenda, people can raise it again," Shin said, adding that he would welcome a more thorough review of alternative disposal methods.

He said that as a committee member for eight years and chairman for the past two, ivory had not been discussed much.

Katherine Ma Miu-wah, one of the members who rejected the incineration plan, said it was a sensitive topic.

"The first thought was what a waste to incinerate and destroy something which is supposed to be valuable," Ma said. "Emotionally, it was difficult to accept."

Ma, who is no longer on the committee, said donating ivory to schools was not the ideal answer either.

"Some schools may not want to take it because it's too big and precious," she said. "Having ivory in the corridor of a school sounds weird and it's not too educational, is it?

"In a way it's paradoxical, a Catch-22 situation. You want to preserve the ivory but it promotes cruelty. But to incinerate it, people feel it would be such a waste. Unless there's a better option, keeping it is a safe way to allow more time to think it through."

The School of Chinese Medicine at Baptist University is one of the 140 schools to have received ivory specimens this year.

The school's associate dean, Professor Zhao Zhong-zhen, is a member of the advisory committee, and said through a spokeswoman that his role was to promote the conservation of Chinese-herbal-medicine resources and ensure that there was a "sustainable supply". Zhao would not speak directly, while another member, Dr Chiu Sein-tuck from the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, said ivory was "too sensitive" to discuss.