Hong Kong holds world's largest ivory burn

Story highlights

  • Hong Kong burned one ton of the 28-ton stockpile of ivory the government has seized in the last few years
  • The government crushed and incinerated elephant tusks
  • It will take a year to destroy stock of confiscated ivory, according to government officials

When Hong Kong announced the start of the world's largest ivory destruction project, one would expect a massive pyre, with flames engulfing the tusks.

That did not happen.

Instead, the tusk fragments were crushed into small chunks, placed in fiber drums and incinerated at a temperature over 1,800 degree Fahrenheit at a waste treatment center.

The process may have been uninspiring, but it signals a significant move by one of the world's largest markets for smuggled ivory to curb wildlife trade. The ceremonial burning marked the first stage of the government's plans to destroy the 28-ton stockpile of ivory it has confiscated over the years.

Ivory bracelets and carved figurines were incinerated along with elephant tusks. The fine dark grey ash left after incineration will be later dumped into a landfill. The government expects to finish destroying the entire stockpile by the middle of next year. Around one metric ton will be kept aside for educational or scientific purposes such as museum displays, according to Hong Kong government officials.

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Hong Kong follows recent initiatives by several countries, including France, Philippines and the U.S. to crackdown on ivory trade. In January, over six tons of illegal ivory was chipped and ground into powder in the Chinese city of Guangzhou. The top business leaders in China have also pledged not to purchase or gift ivory.

After experimenting with several methods, the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation department decided to incinerate the ivory to remove any risk of their re-entry into the black market. Burning doesn't completely destroy the ivory, it only chars the exterior. Hammering it into small pieces and burning it at high temperatures are to ensure total obliteration.

Speaking at the event, John E. Scanlon, secretary-general of Geneva-based CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), an international wildlife protection treaty, said that the destruction "does not negate the cultural heritage of historic ivory carvings, nor will in itself put an end to the illegal trade."

The effort is expected to gradually reduce the supply of ivory. In a bid to reduce its availability, three of the Hong Kong's largest ivory retailers announced earlier this month that they would no longer sell ivory products.

But, conservationists say there is also a need to curb consumers' growing appetite for ivory. To reduce demand, many groups such as the World Wildlife Fund have been urging the government to legislate a permanent ban on ivory sales.