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A customs officer destroys pieces of seized ivory at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels, Belgium, 09 April 2014. According to media reports, about 1.7 tonnes of ivory with an estimated value of 680,000 euros seized over recent years were to be destroyed. According to reports, 36,500 elephants are killed for their ivory every year.

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

PHOTOGRAPH BY JULIEN WARNAND, EPA

Christina Russo

for National Geographic

Published April 9, 2014

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.

Map showing countries where ivory has been crushed or burned.

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."

Watch National Geographic's video of an ivory crush in Colorado, November 2013.

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?

29 comments
ALAN HIGGINS
ALAN HIGGINS

Maybe the point is a step, one of many required, on the long road to making ivory obsolete as a human requirement in any shape or form whatsoever. Just because others don't do the right thing (one of the many arguments) shouldn't be a reason to not do what's right. The message is, and will be, there is no market for ivory in Belgium. Something like that.

Mark Donner
Mark Donner

What should be done is to send in militaries in the elephant habitats around Africa to kill any ivory poacher or smuggler on sight. I don't like drones, but I would accept bombing the ivory dealers in China and Japan with drones. The only good ivory dealer is a dead ivory dealer

Danielle Dunlap
Danielle Dunlap

suppose they 'stamp" out that ivory ever existed as a valuable commodity for future generations...i don't see that as a bad thing...we don't want to lose our elephants...they are one of our links to prehistoric times and if we lose that, we lose a lot more than some pieces of bone extracted from something that once was....

Michael M
Michael M

What idiot thought this is actually a good idea?  As most have already pointed out...supply and demand!  All those involved in this atrocious activity are just as guilty as the elephant poachers, even more so, as they accomplished exactly the opposite of what they supposedly wanted.  Complete and utter morons. 


Adrian Hiel`
Adrian Hiel`

Hello all, my name is Adrian Hiel, and I helped to organise the ivory crush event last week here in Belgium. First off, many thanks for your comments and for your interest in the plight of elephants. Collectively you've made a number of important points and I might be able to help and address.

Now that the ivory has been crushed the Belgian government will organise an artistic competition. The winner of the competition will create one or more pieces of art from the crushed ivory that can be used at museums, airports and ports to educate travellers not to buy ivory and wildlife souvenirs when abroad. The ivory will be put to use reducing demand for more ivory and hopefully saving future elephants from poachers.


In terms of demand for ivory and market forces - seized ivory, under international regulations, can never be re-introduced to the market. It is illegal under any circumstances. For this reason the crush did not diminish the global ivory market. This particular ivory was removed from the global market when it was seized by Belgian customs officials in the years preceding the crush.


Many people correctly pointed out that the crush is symbolic and they are quite right; but it is a symbolism with a few different purposes:


1) Raise awareness that there is an ongoing elephant poaching crisis. Events like this event give us a platform to educate people and politicians and discuss the matter with decision-makers so that real steps can be taken to save elephants. In this particular case the ivory crush served as a curtain-raiser for a conference the following two days which brought together wildlife law enforcement experts from around the world to develop an EU approach to the ongoing crisis. The conference should result in significant resources being devoted within and without the EU to fighting elephant poaching.


2) Stigmatise ivory - the international rules around ivory sales are incredibly complex and confusing for people who do not follow the situation closely. A symbolic action like an ivory crush can imprint an image in people's minds that ivory is something to be avoided. This should reduce the demand and help prevent future elephant deaths.


3) Educate consumers in market countries. It's astonishing to think - but for many people there is no connection between a piece of ivory and a dead elephant. In Chinese 'ivory' literally translates as 'elephant teeth' and many people believe that tusks simply fall out just as human teeth do and are collected off the ground. We invited numerous media outlets from across Asia and fortunately the event received a great deal of coverage in mainstream media. This allows us to educate people that every piece of ivory comes from a dead elephant and again, reduce demand.


No one is under the mistaken impression that an ivory crush will stop the current plague of poaching. But it is an important step in mobilising the enormous resources needed to combat the organised criminal forces behind much of the ivory trade. IFAW will continue to work with organisations like INTERPOL, the Clinton Global Initiative and others to stop these criminals and we'll continue to urge governments (the U.S. has shown considerable leadership on this issue in the last couple of years) that everyone has a role to play if we are to save elephants. The problem is too large and complex for any single NGO, government or law enforcement department to solve on its own.


Apologies for the lengthy post. I hope it is helpful and answers some of your questions. Once again, thank you for your interest in the plight of elephants.

b free
b free

dumb move, best way to decrease demand and therefore price is to increase supply.  the harder it is to come by the more incentive to poach.

Jay Bird
Jay Bird

Ah, the ivory in Africa is just trying to find all the ebony that is illegally forested and exported, to fulfill the Prophecy of Stevie Wonder.

katrina hofstadter
katrina hofstadter

so now the elephants died in vain, their life was taken for nothing. how about that for symbolizing..... destroying the thing that they died for. The poachers arent going to suddenly grow a heart and say "hey we should really stop killing" and lay down their guns, are you kidding me, instead they'll see this as a challenge and a way to make more money. Look at gas prices, you make something hard to get and jack up the price of what you can sell.   That ivory could have be put to some good, why not sell it and use the money for more protection for the elephants. I would think that by sell the ivory stockpiles on an open market, the need to poach would greatly subside.  Why would you pay more to a poacher when its readily available!?  It just seems a shame that the elephants life has TRULY been taken for nothing. 

Peter Ciepiela
Peter Ciepiela

I'm all for saving the elephants, but I don't understand how this activity stops or prevents future poaching (other than it's symbolic stance).  Remember the boring laws of economics? You are drastically decreasing supply (by destroying existing stockpiles) and increasing demand and value (by making ivory more and more rare).  Not everyone is as kind-hearted as these folks, so when they realize stockpiles are dwindling, they will try to capitalize.  I sincerely hope that's fault in my point...

Joy Saldanha
Joy Saldanha

Down the crusher, up the price ! Its the very serious  poaching of these magnificent animals that should be a real life or death threat to those who kill them. And we then may see the end to these money making killings for ivory. j.e.s......

Jaka Brzin
Jaka Brzin

Maybe you could buy guns and employ guards with money you would get from selling this Ivory. Besides, be realistic, there is lots of Ivory on the market anyway. The so called old ivory, dating from before the ban. ITs completly legal. So, how do you know which is which in this case?

Holly Hurst
Holly Hurst

The "crush" is symbolic. It sends a message that governments will not take part in this barbaric trade. The sale of is illegal in many countries. Yes, elephants will continue to be murdered. Yes, ivory will still be sold BUT if this ivory was placed on the market, it would become indistinguishable from other ivory----- (yes, there are ways to date and trace DNA but what buyer will do that?) In Delhi, 25 years ago, I was ushered into a showroom full of carved ivory. I was absolutely horrified. It is still happening. The only way to stop this is to stop BUYING ivory. Educate-educate-educate! Is that ivory trinket really worth the death of these animals? Don't get me started on FUR.............

xana faye
xana faye

Yes less graven images for the catholic church 

darryl perryman
darryl perryman

Anyone else think it is ironic that the machine they are using to crush the tusks is called the "Red Rhino"?

John Lavin
John Lavin

What a shame! It's too bad that an elephant was killed to give up it's tusks, but destroying them is worse.  Why not use the tusks in a way to benefit the poor and sick of the world, or even to prevent and police current herds?

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

@Holly Hurst It IS worth it to those people who have the money to spend on items of status Holly. They don't care about the animals. All the products that come from tigers are one example. Ivory is a high status commodity and the rarer it becomes the higher the value and status. 


Many of those involved in poaching will make as much money from one poached tusk or sale as they can in a year of working. That includes all the corrupt officials right up the line and that is why ivory continues to be poached. It's that inequality that has to be addressed. Grown adults with families should not be paid peanuts and until people are paid decently then people will feed their families like this if they have to.

Bart F.
Bart F.

@darryl perryman  this is a word game, in Dutch "red" means "to save" therefor it's not that ironic, it's to be understood as "save the rhino".

Andrew Roberts
Andrew Roberts

@John Lavin  Agree.  They should have sold the ivory and used the money to help stop the poaching efforts.  The efforts to stop poachers is expensive, Unfortunately and sadly the animal is already dead, some good should come from it.  

Daniel Yoon
Daniel Yoon

@John Lavin  I assume they are trying to end the cycle by destroying its value and raising awareness about poaching and smuggling. If ivory is still precious, there will be always people willing to hunt elephants and smuggle for its value. It's unlike gold or precious gems, for ivory comes from animal, and potential value can endanger species' existence. 
I do agree where you're coming from, but it could be done without the ivory being sold off, if nations come together about this...

Jay Bird
Jay Bird

@Andrew Booth: I just don't get the tiger parts thing. It's like all Asian men are collectively declaring, "yes, we have gone insane about our small weiners." Look, dudes, the tiger parts aren't going to help. Marry a Brasilian or African girl and hope future generations are not so 'shorted' in their gifts, that's all the hope you've got.

Bogdan G.
Bogdan G.

@Andrew Roberts @John Lavin What's even more terrible is that I'm also reading about protecting endangered specifies by organizing an auction with the prize of killing one exemplar. How can you protect something by giving mixed signals? Others will follow and will say: "If that dude could do it in an organized way, why couldn't I? Even if it's not legal I could show that I'm smarter than that idiot that had to pay so much for that".

Bogdan G.
Bogdan G.

@Daniel Yoon Isn't that counterproductive? If it becomes very rare it doesn't value more? Like so little authentic ivory will be at some point on the market that would make it even more precious?

Bogdan G.
Bogdan G.

@Daniel Yoon @Andrew BoothDaniel, symbols are for educated people. We're talking about people that lack any means of communication, education and struggle in poverty (poachers). You can't expect that these people to suddenly grow a brain and start thinking on what they are doing. I think demand of rare goods will always be constant with slight variations. Tell a kid that he's not allowed to play with some particular toy. Suddenly you would get him interested in playing with it even if previously he wouldn't have barely seen it. Some of these people with their sick minds are already thinking how much more profit they would be making when the elephants would be extinct and ivory would be so rare.

Daniel Yoon
Daniel Yoon

@Andrew Booth  To me, multiple nations' act of destroying ivory and tusks have symbolic value as a message that group of nations are against poaching ivory and consider them illegal. I wouldn't call it counterproductive, as long as general public gets the message.
In turn, yes, destroying them will make them even rarer and might increase their value, but also might decrease demand in turn, which also could impacts the value of ivory. Purchasing and possessing illegal good could discourage much demand.
At least it's the way I see what they are trying to do by destroying and sending the message out on media.

xana faye
xana faye

@Bogdan G. @Daniel Yoon more expensive yes but at least the problem will lessen.. wouldn't there be less poachers now that ivories get destroyed?

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

@Bogdan G. @Daniel YoonExactly Bogdan! There will always be some people prepared to spend money the rarer something becomes - a good example is caviar.


The only result of destroying this ivory will be to increase poaching. Governments have 'come together' on the subject -  poaching is facilitated by all those park rangers, officials, police and local politicians who take backhanders right up the line. 

Surely the proof is that poaching continues to increase with no sign of a let up. 

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