Belgium Crushes its Elephant Ivory As Europe Takes Harder Look at Wildlife Trafficking

Belgium is the second European nation, after France, to pulverize its ivory stockpile.

A customs officer destroys pieces of seized ivory at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium.

Belgium joined the U.S., France, Gabon, Chad, China, Zambia, and the Philippines on Wednesday morning, when it became the latest nation to destroy its ivory stockpile.

One and a half tons of ivory were pulverized on the grounds of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, in Tervuren, just outside Brussels. Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Laurette Onkelinx hosted the event, and Gratien Capiau, head of customs procedures, spoke. Also there were ambassadors and dignitaries from various nations, including from the U.S., France, the U.K., and the key elephant-range states of Tanzania and South Africa.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) helped organize the event. Adrian Hiel, the EU communications director for IFAW, said that after the U.S. crush, in November 2013, when the government destroyed nearly six tons of ivory, "we proposed a similar idea to Belgium officials. They were immediately amenable."

Beyond the symbolic message that destroying the ivory conveys, Hiel said there are economic benefits. "From a country's perspective, it saves money to crush the ivory. Due to the rules of CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora], the confiscated ivory can never be sold, so it becomes a liability you need to take care of. It costs money to store it."

Another important, though intangible, benefit, Hiel pointed out, "is that crushes provide a venue and an occasion to get everyone together and discuss concrete steps about what can be done. The only way to contend with [ivory trafficking] is to sit down with governments and NGOs and talk things through."

Belgium's crush coincides with just such a coming together in Brussels on April 10: the Conference on the EU Approach Against Wildlife Trafficking. Some 160 representatives from EU member states, courts, international organizations, and research institutions are meeting to discuss how the EU can combat the illegal trade in wildlife, both domestically and globally.

Earlier this year, the European Parliament (one of the three main political bodies in the EU, along with the European Commission and the European Council) passed a landmark resolution that condemned the illegal poaching of elephants and called for a moratorium on all ivory sales.

Janice Weatherley Singh, director of European policy and government relations for the Wildlife Conservation Society, explained that although the parliament's resolution wasn't a legal document, "it sent a very strong political message to the EU Commission."

In February, the commission launched a public consultation period, asking national ministries, enforcement authorities, NGOs, and citizens to answer a list of questions on "how to tackle better the key challenges and the role of the EU in the future approach against wildlife trafficking, both regarding action at EU and at global level." Many groups, including WCS, responded.

WCS's Singh says there are a few weaknesses in current EU policy: "One problem is that there are different legal instruments on the issue, but it doesn't have a clear, overall approach." Another concern, she said, is that the EU has "good legislation in place but not good follow-through. We would ask for a stronger action plan."

The public consultation period closes tomorrow, and soon thereafter, the EU Commission is expected to release an announcement about the consultation findings and about how—or if—it plans to beef up its policy on illegal trade in wildlife.

"The EU Commission might decide to propose new legislation," Singh said. "Or it could be an action plan for wildlife. Or it could simply say, We don't need to do anything else."

Not all agree that destroying ivory is a good thing. "The real message we're sending is that we're giving [traffickers] control over the market, because they're going to be the only ones holding ivory stocks," declared a recent op-ed published in the South China Morning Post.

Bryan Christy, writing for National Geographic, has pointed out that ivory destruction in the past has been coupled with meaningful policy changes. After Kenya burned its ivory in 1989, it voted to ban all international trade in ivory.

According to Christy, the question to ask countries destroying their ivory stocks today is, What steps are you also taking to stop poaching, trafficking, and buying?