China’s crushing of 6.1 metric tons of illegal ivory early in January may do more to reduce poaching in Africa than almost any other conceivable law enforcement or investigative initiative now available in either Africa or Asia.
By far the world’s largest market for the tusks of African elephants – ivory – and for rhinoceros horn is in China, followed by Vietnam and Malaysia. Many Asians ascribe medicinal properties to ground up ivory. Others in China and neighboring countries adore carvings of ivory or other kinds of artistic creation made of ivory, all being regarded as important status symbols. In China, ivory fetches about $2000 per kilogram on the black market.
Chinese officials reported that the 6.1 tons of ivory destroyed were but a part of a larger trove of confiscated illegal elephant tusks taken by customs and other officials in recent years. The officials in charge of the pulverization of the ivory would not reveal how much more illegal ivory is held in government warehouses, but they did acknowledge that the ivory in question had been intercepted by customs officials scrutinizing containers from Africa as well as from shops in China selling carvings and other artifacts.
In order to put ivory merchants and smugglers on notice, Chinese customs and forestry officials made a large public show of piling up ivory ornaments and carvings to display the illegal loot. Tusks too long for the display had been sawn up into smaller fragments. Then the massive heap was fed into two giant crushing machines.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare rightly congratulated China for engaging in a powerful symbolic act. It was pleased that China was “concerned about the toll ivory trafficking is taking on elephant populations, as well as the other threats to regional security that arise in connection with wildlife crime.” It constituted a clear message to consumers and middlemen that “ivory buying was unethical and wrong.”
China joined the United States, the Philippines, and Gabon in recent public displays of ivory destruction. The U.S. crushed 6 tons in November, the Philippines smashed 5 tons in June, and Gabon burned 5 tons in 2012. Five tons of ivory is worth about $10 million. In all cases, the ivory in question had been confiscated over many years and had remained in storage.
Hong Kong has also been active in combating the ivory trade, intercepting at least three shipments from Africa in 2013, collectively worth about $9 million. The ivory shipments had originated in Nigeria, Togo, and Cote d’Ivoire, but the tusks may have come from other parts of Africa as well.
Kenya and Tanzania have also been active in battling the ivory trade, especially as the number of elephants killed for their tusks throughout eastern and southern Africa has shown a startlingly large increase since 2010. About 35,000 elephants were killed for their tusks in 2013 alone. In Kenya, at least, the government has successfully turned local poachers into game rangers. But the middlemen, some of whom are Chinese, are still active. This month’s stockpile destruction in China may well discourage such purveyors of elephant tusks from seeking new supplies.
South Africa and Mozambique, especially the game parks that straddle their mutual border, have in recent years also battled an upsurge in poaching. So have Zambia and Namibia. But the most complete devastation has taken place in the wake of war, in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, where fighting factions (including the Lord’s Resistance Army) have routinely slaughtered elephants to pay for weapons and ammunition. In Zimbabwe, unrest in 2013 led to the cyanide poisoning of ponds to kill elephants in large numbers, always for their tusks.
If China crushes more ivory, and Vietnam follows suit, and if China’s customs officials are relentlessly vigilant, it is just possible that the market for ivory will shrink and poaching become less of a problem for Africa. The confiscation and pulverizing of ivory by China also sends a welcome message to Chinese consumers at home. In the short term the value of remaining ivory may increase; in the long run the market may well diminish, as it has in the United States since the importation and sale of ivory was made illegal in 1972.
Robert I. Rotberg is Fulbright Research Professor at the Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.