National Geographic News
Elephant tusks are displayed after being confiscated by Hong Kong Customs in Hong Kong Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013.
These elephant tusks were confiscated by Hong Kong Customs in October 2013. The tusks were hidden in bags of soybeans on three separate ships. Officials said the likely final destination was mainland China.

Laurel Neme

for National Geographic

Published May 14, 2014

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.

Controversial Measure

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).

The Ceremony

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.)

Attitude Shift

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."

Sean Nolan
Sean Nolan

It should be destroyed, re-marketing it would just feed the demand. What we need next is a total ban on all Ivory sale. A Certificate of Authenticity should accompany any Ivory artifacts that are auctioned. If there is no demand, our Elephants are saved for future generations

Joyce Chiu
Joyce Chiu

Thanks to the efforts of HI school children, attitudes are starting to change. Today, stop killing elephants. Tomorrow, tigers, sharks, bears, monkeys.  Next, each other and the earth.

Angie Lai
Angie Lai

a lot of these comments about this being wasteful shows that ivory is still see it as precious commodity. until we see illegal animal trade products as having no purpose unless on a living animal, we still have a ways to go.

Denese Koch
Denese Koch

At least record the sizes and weights of the tusks before they are destroyed. Take photos. Will our grandchildren ever see elephants with tusks the size that some of these grew to? The chances are slim, in my opinion.

Justin L.
Justin L.

Why not put all that ivory on the market and decrease the demand while using the proceeds to educate and put toward protection of these creatures.  The burning seems to be more symbolic than productive.

Mark Mack
Mark Mack

Nice step. Now, if they'd only start viewing shark fins and manta gill rakers as negatively. Considering that sharks are many, many times more important to the survival of the planet, you'd think they'd get a slightly higher priority...

Donald Lyttle
Donald Lyttle

Destroying the Ivory is a worthy act, however its my bet it will just send prices for ivory skyrocketing, in the same way that the over-fishing of blue fin tuna led to major japanese companies stockpiling tuna anticipating a major price hike, once the species was decimated. Most problems on this planet can be solved easily. Just wipe out the human race!

Teng Foong Wong
Teng Foong Wong

Being the gateway of activities such as consumption and exportation of shark fins, dried sea horse etc etc, my opinion is that these are just to show "enforcement done" by authorities.

If they were donated to museums or shown to public the atrocities done by mankind towards animals wouldn't it be better as a form of education.

James Xi
James Xi

The hunters killed the elephants to get the ivory to sell to people who would use it to make crafts, medicines. If this continues, there won't be any elephant left on Earth. For these ivory left behind by the long-gone elephants, they should probably be returned to their original homeland/grassland or their country of origin. Why burn them to create more pollution to this Earth and waste the nature's resources which have got more scarce each day  ?

Alan Lieberman
Alan Lieberman

I'm glad to see some action is being taken to reduce the ivory from the market.  Hopefully education will overcome ignorance.  If this action causes an increase in ivory demand and fuel poaching activity, then perhaps more energy and resources will be directed towards reducing demand and prosecuting poachers.

Cynthia O'Connor
Cynthia O'Connor

This is such good news, and we need much more good news every day until our Elephants are safe!

Diane Delrio
Diane Delrio


Then those beautiful animals died for nothing.  Destroying this Ivory would only make Ivory much more rare and at the same time drive up the value.  They should be used for education, museums and should be memorialized in all the countries that experience illegal poaching of these beautiful animals.

J Haskins
J Haskins

I am sure all those dead elephants will be grateful to know that they died for nothing.  What a waste.


Seems pretty wasteful, is there nothing better than can be done with this?


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