Tomorrow, Hong Kong starts destroying virtually all its 29.6-ton stockpile of confiscated ivory in a process that could take a year or more.
As the largest such event to date, Hong Kong's action signals an attitudinal shift that is turning ivory into a tacitly taboo product. So far, nine countries have eliminated all or part of their ivory stockpiles.
Hong Kong is both an ivory consumer and a key transport hub for illegal ivory entering China. In 2013 authorities intercepted about eight tons of smuggled ivory, including three large-scale shipments containing more than 3,300 tusks.
While destruction of such a sizable ivory collection will be a complicated and lengthy process, it will ultimately cut the costs of managing and securing the stockpile. Hong Kong also plans to regularly destroy all ivory confiscated in the future.
Destroying national stockpiles stirs controversy, and it took Hong Kong more than 18 months to come to this decision.
Opponents argue that eliminating stockpiles won't stem demand and could drive up prices of remaining ivory. They view stockpiles as a source of future revenue that could be used for conservation.
Supporters say that destroying stockpiles demonstrates a government's commitment to fight elephant poaching and wildlife crime, reduces demand, and combats ivory trafficking directly by eliminating a source that could leak into the black market.
Hong Kong joins a growing list of governments that have moved to get rid of their ivory: Kenya (12 tons in 1989, 5 tons in 2011), Zambia (9.5 tons in 1992), Gabon (4.8 tons in June 2012), the Philippines (5 tons in June 2013), the United States (6 tons in November 2013), China (6 tons in January 2014), France (3 tons in February 2014), Chad (1.1 tons in February 2014), and Belgium (1.5 tons in April 2014).
About 150 invited guests will attend the Destruction of Confiscated Ivory Launching Ceremony at the Tsing Yi Chemical Waste Treatment Center, located in Hong Kong's port.
Hong Kong's secretary for the environment, Wong Kam-sing, will officiate. Speakers will include John Scanlon, secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and Meng Xianlin, executive director general of the Endangered Species Import and Export Management Office of China.
According to Scanlon, "The destruction of confiscated elephant ivory, coupled with the seizure of ivory and prosecution of offenders, sends a powerful message that Hong Kong does not accept and will not tolerate this illegal trade or the devastating impact it is having on the African elephant and on the livelihoods of rural communities."
Furthermore, Scanlon notes, because modern forensics can be used to identify the age and origin of ivory, the Hong Kong destruction "provides a very public opportunity to send a message ... that illegally traded elephant ivory will never have any commercial value, and the return on the 'investment' will most likely be imprisonment, heavy fines, and seized assets."
Incinerating the Ivory
The incineration in Hong Kong will take place inside a two-story rotary kiln at the Tsing Yi plant, which normally deals with a wide range of chemical wastes, including marine waste from oceangoing vessels.
It will be done in batches of up to three tons, the maximum that can be handled at one time by the machinery. First, the ivory will be sawed into segments no longer than 50 centimeters. It will then be mixed with chemicals, such as waste oils and organic solvents, to help raise the temperature high enough for complete destruction without supplementary fuel and to fit in with the facility's normal workload.
Hong Kong's Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department selected incineration after extensive testing of different methods, including stabilization—which involves mixing small pieces of ivory with cement, lime, and sludge waste and letting it solidify—and crushing ivory with a backhoe and steamroller.
Incineration proved the only way to achieve complete destruction of ivory. (Any ivory left behind, however little, could be recovered, raising security concerns.)
Public pressure to ban ivory sales permanently in Hong Kong is building, and increasingly ivory is considered unacceptable for use as art, as an investment, or as a status symbol.
For many years, the government used forfeited ivory as a tool for educating children about conservation, with 120 schools participating in its Endangered Species Specimens Donation Programme since the initiative was launched in December 2012.
Yet schoolchildren in Hong Kong protested this use, with some returning the ivory and calling on the government to institute a full sales ban.
In late February, China's top business leaders pledged not to purchase, possess, or give ivory as a gift.
On March 18, Hong Kong's largest ivory retailer, Chinese Arts & Crafts (H.K.) Ltd., announced it would no longer sell ivory products, and on April 25 the second largest, Wing On Department Store, followed suit.
On May 8, the third largest retailer, Yue Hwa Chinese Products Emporium, which operates 18 stores in Hong Kong, gave notice that it would stop selling ivory products.
"Our Company realized the trend of protecting endangered species in the society; we respect and agree with the will of the general public to protect these animals," Yue Hwa noted in a statement.
"All these big ivory destruction events going on around the world are certainly having a positive effect on reducing demand," said Alex Hofford, a consultant with WildAid and cofounder of the NGO Hong Kong for Elephants.
"It's no coincidence," Hofford said, "that all three of Hong Kong's largest ivory retailers decided to remove ivory from their shelves ... leading up to the Hong Kong ivory burn. The retail stores are the final link in a long chain reaching back to the bullets in Africa. It's like cutting the head off a snake."