When it crushed six tons of confiscated ivory on Thursday, authorities in the United States ensured that it had no chance of ending up in the wrong hands. Hong Kong, which seized more ivory between January and October this year than the U.S. has in the past twenty-five years, has yet to take the same precautions and the continued existence of its stockpile of confiscated ivory is arousing the concern of some conservationists.
China’s is the world’s leading destination for illegal shipments of elephant tusk and rhino horn, and Hong Kong a major transhipment point for the grisly but lucrative trade. The city’s cache of confiscated ivory is estimated to total around thirty tons, and wildlife groups have been calling for its destruction.
Although the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) of the Hong Kong government approved a plan to incinerate the stockpile, its own endangered species advisory committee reversed the decision last year.
“The AFCD was advised to strengthen the donation of specimens of endangered species to schools for education purposes,” a spokeswoman at AFCD says, adding that more than two hundred schools had announced their interest in such donations.
In fairness, there is little chance of seized ivory going astray in tightly administered Hong Kong, unlike in other jurisdictions — such as the Philippines, where five tons of tusks were destroyed in June after corrupt officials were found to be looting from the stockpile.
“A place like Hong Kong generally doesn’t have a history of releasing ivory back into the market,” says Tom Milliken, elephant expert at the wildlife monitoring organization Traffic, “so it may take the decision not to incinerate.”
But some conservationists are skeptical. “Hong Kong absolutely has to incinerate its stockpile,” says Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia regional director of International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). “By keeping it, there will always be people trying to get their hands on it, and it creates a huge financial burden for the government to keep it secure.”
Above all, Gabriel thinks that Hong Kong needs to send an unequivocal message to Chinese ivory dealers.
“In the nineties, there was a campaign in China to save the Tibetan antelope, which was poached in the tens of thousands for the Western market. In the end, China burned the antelope pelts. Today, African countries are asking China to protect their elephants, because they can’t do it alone.”