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Will Hong Kong destroy huge ivory stockpile following China's lead?

By Tim Hume, CNN
January 10, 2014 -- Updated 2150 GMT (0550 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Conservationists hope Hong Kong will destroy its huge horde of confiscated ivory
  • They want it incinerated to wipe out demand and prevent it returning to market
  • As gateway to China, world's biggest ivory consumer, Hong Kong has enormous stockpile
  • China's move to crush tons of ivory this week may inspire Hong Kong to follow suit

Hong Kong (CNN) -- Conservationists are optimistic Hong Kong will move to destroy its huge stockpile of confiscated ivory -- believed to be one of the world's biggest -- following China's landmark destruction of six tons of tusks and ivory sculptures this week.

Hong Kong, one of the principal gateways to mainland China, has previously opted not to destroy its stockpile of the illegal "white gold" -- most of which is seized en route to the mainland -- opting instead to hold it in secret warehouses, sending small amounts to schools for educational purposes. China is the world's largest ivory market, accounting for an estimated 70% of global consumption, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

But a spokeswoman for Hong Kong's Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said a committee would consider alternate means of dealing with the stockpile of "about 30 tons" of contraband ivory held by the Chinese Special Administrative Region (SAR), a hub of the global ivory trade, at a meeting later this month.

The department had been trialing means of destroying ivory, including incineration, she said.

Activists are hopeful Hong Kong will be encouraged to emulate the recent example of China, which took the symbolic gesture of crushing of tons of ivory in the southern Guangdong province Monday.

The public demolition, which took place before diplomats, conservationists and media, came a month after China pledged at an African Elephant Summit in Botswana to take action to combat ivory trading.

China destroys 6 tons of illegal ivory

The quantity destroyed by China -- the first occasion the superpower has destroyed any of its stockpile -- amounted to about one-sixth of the illegal ivory confiscated worldwide in 2012, according to IFAW estimates.

"The government of China took a stand finally on the issue and made a symbolic gesture to say to the world they want to join the global fight against the illegal wildlife trade," said activist Alex Hofford of lobby group Hong Kong for Elephants.

Given Hong Kong's close relationship with China and with key trading partner the United States, which similarly destroyed its entire 6-ton stockpile of ivory in November, "I don't very well see how (Hong Kong) cannot" follow suit, he said.

The destruction of seized ivory hordes has also taken place in the Philippines, Gabon, and Kenya in recent years. "There's a bit of a pattern emerging, a global trend now to get rid of the ivory stockpiles," said Hofford, adding that Hong Kong's trove would be by far the largest to be destroyed.

READ MORE: Chinese construction camps eyed as ivory conduits in Republic of Congo

Conservation groups have been calling on governments to destroy their stockpiles, which often require substantial resources to keep secure, in order to help wipe out the demand for ivory and prevent the product returning to market. According to the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species, a large amount of confiscated African ivory goes missing every year.

More crucially, said Hofford, public destruction also sends a powerful message to potential buyers.

"It sends a really strong signal to consumers in China that it's morally reprehensible -- it's the wrong thing to do, and by buying illegal wildlife products, they're directly contributing to the poaching crisis in Africa," he said.

A survey of 900 middle and upper middle class Chinese, commissioned by National Geographic last year, found nearly 60% of respondents believed that strong government directives not to purchase ivory would be the most effective way to counter the trade. The survey also found that Chinese consumers associated ivory products with luxury and prestige.

According to Jeff He, special assistant to the Asia Regional Director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a rise in demand from Asia, and especially China, in recent years has fueled the black market and put increasing pressure on African elephants in the wild.

The elephant population in Africa has now shrunk to around half a million, from 1.2 million in 1980. Nearly one hundred African elephants are killed for their tusks every day, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Hofford said that incinerating, not merely crushing, the ivory was a key consideration, as the crushing process would chunks of ivory large enough that they could still be worked into trinkets and returned to the ivory market.

READ MORE: Hong Kong's seized ivory stockpile an elephant-sized headache

CNN's Sophie Brown and journalist Peter Shadbolt contributed to this report.

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