Smash and burn

  • Behind The Cage
  • Friday, 25 Apr 2014

A customs officer holds a piece of carved ivory, part of seized ivory to be destroyed, at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels, in this file pic

IT is estimated that 35,000 to 50,000 elephants are killed each year as a result of the demand for ivory.

Ivory has been used by humans for millennia to make jewellery, decorative items and furniture. However, the sale of ivory in recent years has caused controversy as trade is directly linked to the dwindling number of elephants worldwide.

Elephants in the wild are now close to extinction in several countries such as China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos and even Malaysia.

But even though the ivory trade is illegal, there is still a thriving black market.

Estimated to be worth more than cocaine and gold, with profit in the billions, the ivory trade is one of the main sources of income for many illegal wildlife trade syndicates around the world.

A Perhilitan representative explained to me that when ivory smugglers are caught, the ivory is then confiscated and a report is filed with the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), a global database of elephant specimen seizures in operation since 1989.

However, in an effort to prevent confiscated ivory from re-entering the black market, some governments have decided to destroy seized ivory.

The Philippines drew attention when they recently destroyed their five-tonne stockpile of seized ivory in June last year.

Later in November, the United States destroyed its entire six-tonne stockpile of ivory “to send a clear message that the United States will not tolerate ivory trafficking and the toll it is taking on elephant populations, particularly in Africa”.

But what started all these large-scale public destruction of ivory?

From my research, Kenya captured media attention when they burnt 12 tonnes of ivory in 1989 which subsequently lead to an international ivory trade ban the following year.

That event paved the way for other countries to destroy their own seized stockpiles as a message to poachers that there is no market for the material.

Personally, I don’t really see much point in governments destroying their seized ivory stockpiles. The gesture is laudable, but I don’t see how it will affect the global ivory trade.

I don’t think that poachers are going to stop hunting elephants after seeing countries burning their seized ivory. In fact, it may lead to traders raising the price of ivory because there is less of it in the world.

I fear that no matter how many tonnes of ivory are destroyed, it won’t bring back our elephants.

To save the elephants, I believe that governments must address the problem at its source – the poachers. Increasing the number of rangers and imposing harsher punishments would make a difference. 

On top of that, educating the public is of dire importance. People should be made aware of how elephants endure slows and painful deaths just so poachers can cut off their tusks to sell.

If people realised how their ivory jewellery or statues were obtained, they might think twice before buying them. And if the demand for ivory is not there, there will be no market for it.

It is also important to note that the process of destroying ivory is no easy task!


The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) National Wildlife Forensics Lab confirmed the difficulties in burning elephant ivory during experiments they conducted in 2008. Using oxygen-enriched propane to generate ultra-high temperatures (roughly 980º Celsius), an ivory tusk lost only about a quarter ounce of its weight per minute.

At that rate, depending on the temperature and duration of the fire, and the size of the ivory, it could take months to burn one tonne of ivory.

Even crushing ivory is no simple task. The Philippines discovered that crushing elephant ivory with a roadroller did not do much to damage the ivory, so they resorted to hammering it to pieces and burning it in an incinerator instead.

So what do you think? Is the destruction of ivory necessary? Is it worth the effort?

I believe that the effort put into destroying ivory needs to be diverted to other more proactive measures to ensure the survival and protection of elephants.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own
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wildlife conservation , ivory , elephants


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