Stockpiling seized ivory lends it undeserved legitimacy

After China, which way will Hong Kong turn? Vincent Yu

Hong Kong’s Endangered Species Advisory Committee meets today to decide whether to follow China’s lead and destroy its own (33-tonne) stockpile of contraband ivory.

This is welcome news, but the destruction of confiscated specimens from threatened species should be standard practice for a country signed up to doing so. The Chinese stockpile destroyed earlier this month, around six tonnes worth up to US$12m, only represents about 13% of its current stock, that is, the stock that has accumulated despite 121 tonnes going missing.

China joins a string of countries to tackle their ivory stockpiles, following the US, the Philippines, Gabon and Kenya.

But these destructions in total, amounting to nearly 27 tonnes of confiscated ivory, represent a mere 9% of the estimated global volume seized between 1996 and 2011.

An extraordinary act?

As with all 179 signatories to the Convention on Trade in International Species (CITIES), China is directed to save in storage or destroy ivory, except for “bona fide scientific, educational, enforcement or identification purposes”. Confiscated specimens can also be returned to their country of origin, but this can be very costly, logistically complex, and runs the risk of them re-entering the black market.

And yet elements of China’s decision to destroy some of its stockpile are indeed extraordinary. Statements made by China in recent years have dodged the issue of its role in the illegal ivory trade chain. Until recently China deflected blame, framed the ivory crisis as an African law enforcement issue, or suggested that confiscated ivory in African stockpiles be offered to satisfy Chinese consumer demand.

China’s action comes as increasing numbers of Chinese nationals are apprehended at African airports carrying ivory out of the continent. While critics may call it a publicity stunt, it seems China recognises that it is part of the wildlife trafficking problem, and is resolved to be part of a serious solution.

An asset to no one

Destruction of stocks addresses ivory demand in a way that catching ivory traffickers does not. It suggests the problem lies not just with smugglers but with all those who desire the smuggled commodity, and that the government will tolerate neither. Publicly destroying stockpiles has the potential to change attitudes and perhaps the plight of elephants for the better. It contributes to the momentum required to resolve the current poaching crisis.

In parts of Africa, national ivory stockpiles have long been viewed as a government asset that has the potential to bring in revenue for wildlife and other agencies. A long-standing, ongoing debate between African pro-trade and anti-trade factions started when the African elephant was first listed in CITES appendices, and only seems to take a backseat when elephant carcasses overwhelm the physical and political landscape.

Why store large volumes of ivory contraband for great lengths of time for little purpose? Storage and good security eat up funds that could be better spent elsewhere. Poor security risks thefts, of which there are many examples from “secure” government vaults, such as in Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique, and Vietnam. Reports of tusks “with legs”, like Ivindo 3 from Gabon and a Ugandan pair – ivory confiscated in Africa and then again in Asia – demonstrate that recycling ivory from government stockpiles back into the black market is a reality.

Maintaining stockpiles may contribute to ambiguity over the legal status of ivory. It can also give the impression that contraband ivory is a legitimate commodity to be speculated on – an asset worth keeping hold of. Destruction, rather than storage, circumvents controversy of inciting “ivory worship”, such as when Sri Lankan authorities considered transferring poached tusks trafficked from Kenya to a Buddhist temple last year.

Waste of life not ivory

Some critics complain that destroying ivory contraband is a waste. But let’s remember that the real waste occurred when the elephant was destroyed for its teeth and could no longer contribute to the ecosystem, the tourist economy, or Africa’s cultural heritage.

Others argue that destroying stockpiles sends a scarcity signal down the illegal trade chain, leading to price rises and increased poaching to capitalise on the increased value. But this would mean stockpile leakage is a significant source of commercial ivory, further demonstrating the dimensions of the problem. Besides, other urgent conservation or anti-poaching actions are designed to cut supply.

China’s destruction of a portion of its illegal ivory stockpile should be commended as an important contribution that could seed a “distaste” for ivory in what is the world’s largest market for it. With a paltry number of ivory seizures in 2013, this decisive and widely broadcasted action by the Chinese government shines some hope on an otherwise dismal prospect for the future of the African elephant. Let’s hope that Hong Kong follows suit.