China yesterday destroyed a large quantity of confiscated ivory, in a public event described by conservation groups as "a landmark move".
More than six tonnes of carvings, ornaments and tusks amassed over the years were destroyed. State media say the move aims "to discourage illegal ivory trade, protect wildlife and raise awareness".
Conservationists say demand for ivory, where China is seen as the biggest market, is fueling poaching in Africa. The Chinese use ivory in traditional crafts and carvings are priced as status symbols.
Ivory can fetch up to $2,000 (Sh172,000) a kg on the black market, earning it the nickname "white gold."
John Scanlon, secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), said this was the first time China has chosen to crush ivory it had previously seized.
"It's an occasion when China can send and is sending a very powerful message both domestically to the Chinese people and internationally, that it is not prepared to tolerate the illegal trade in elephant ivory," he told Reuters news agency.
The event in Dongguan city, Guangdong province, which had media, diplomats and conservationists in attendance, was broadcast on state television.
Forestry and customs officials organized what they said was the country's first large-scale ivory destruction in the province where much of China's ivory trade is focused.
Some of the powder from the crushed ivory is to be disposed, with others sent to a museum and preserved, state media said.
Cites banned the trade in ivory in 1989. But poaching has increased across sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, with criminal gangs slaughtering elephants for ivory markets in Asia.
China is following other countries that have destroyed their ivory stocks in the past year.
In June, the Philippines burned and crushed more than 5 tons of ivory worth an estimated $10 million confiscated since 2009, becoming the first Asian country to do so. In November, the United States destroyed 6 tons of ivory seized over 25 years. Gabon burned nearly 5 tons in 2012.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare said the destruction was a powerful symbolic act that shows that the Chinese government is "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."
Ivory destruction in countries along the trade chain "clearly tells consumers everywhere that ivory buying is unethical and wrong," IFAW CEO Azzedine Downs, who attended the event, said in a statement. IFAW estimates that more than 35,000 elephants were killed last year by poachers for ivory.
WildAid, Save the Elephants, and the African Wildlife Foundation applauded China’s decision to destroy the confiscated ivory.
In 2013, the NGOs, along with former NBA superstar Yao Ming and actress Li Bing Bing, called on China to raise awareness about elephant poaching, reduce the demand for ivory, and protect endangered wildlife.
“Today’s ivory crush is a significant step in raising public awareness and will hopefully lead to similar events throughout China,” said Yao Ming, who, alongside Britain's Prince William and David Beckham, will appear in a public service message to be broadcast by China’s leading television stations beginning this month.
China’s rapid economic development continues to build a burgeoning middle class that can afford—and is demanding in greater quantities— endangered wildlife products, such as ivory. The current demand for ivory is estimated to claim the lives of as many as 35,000 African elephants annually.
“The demand for illegally traded ivory negatively impacts Africa’s tourism industry and reportedly contributes to funds used by terror and insurgent groups,” said WildAid’s Executive Director Peter Knights.
WildAid spearheaded a campaign in 2006 to reduce the demand for shark fin soup in China. Through its partnership with Save the Elephants and the African Wildlife Foundation, similar public awareness tactics are being used to inform consumers of the impact of ivory demand.
“As the largest ivory market in the world, China has a significant role to play in combatting the illegal trade in ivory,” said African Wildlife Foundation CEO Patrick Bergin. “We commend the Chinese government for taking this important first step and hope it signals their sincere and growing commitment to help end the elephant slaughter in Africa.”