On June 21 the Philippines will destroy five tons of seized ivory, becoming the world's first ivory-consuming nation to destroy its national ivory stock.
The act comes in the wake of the country's being identified by National Geographic magazine as having a longtime ivory-trafficking problem.
"The destruction of the items would hopefully bring the Philippines' message across the globe that the country is serious and will not tolerate illegal wildlife trade, and denounces the continuous killing of elephants for illicit ivory trade," says Mundita Lim, director of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
PAWB, the country's lead wildlife agency, will destroy all the ivory in its possession, except for 106 pieces to be repatriated to Kenya and a few pieces to be retained for training, enforcement, and education purposes.
Five tons is less than half of the total ivory seized by the Philippines in recent years. But most of that seized ivory grew legs and disappeared. (Related photos: "Blood Ivory.")
Customs agents seized 7.7 tons of smuggled ivory in 2005 and another 5.4 tons in 2009. But a subsequent audit revealed that customs had "lost" almost six tons of this ivory, an act so suspicious that PAWB sued the agency.
Customs turned its 2009 seizure over to PAWB, which soon discovered that it too had mice in its larder. Someone broke into its storeroom and stole more than 1.7 tons. The thieves even replaced the stolen tusks with excellent replicas made of plastic.
PAWB will destroy the remainder of its ivory this week, though customs, it notes, retains "several kilos."
Symbol for a Symbol
Ever since Kenya's President Daniel Arap Moi, flanked by Kenya Wildlife Service Director Richard Leakey, set fire to 13 tons of ivory in 1989, the destruction of ivory has been one of the world's most recognized acts of defiance against elephant slaughter and ivory trafficking.
Inspired by photographs of the flaming ivory, that same year parties to the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) passed a global ban on the international ivory trade.
The ban worked. Elephant populations in key areas were on their way to recovery. (Related: "Elephants Communicate in Sophisticated Sign Language, Researchers Say.")
But two recent factors have reversed that success. First, as explained in National Geographic's October cover story, "Blood Ivory," CITES authorized "experimental" sales of ivory by southern African countries to Japan in 1999 and to Japan and China in 2008.
Second, the Chinese economy has risen like a Phoenix, empowering a vast wave of new consumers who seek ivory in forms ranging from valuable chopsticks to priceless carvings of spiritual motifs—symbols of a cultural past and a prosperous present.
At 10:30 a.m. on Friday, June 21, on the grounds of the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife Center, Quezon City, the Philippine government will crush the illegal ivory using industrial rollers.
Originally, the government had intended to have a small burn to accent the ceremony, but local environmental groups decried burning as sending up both the wrong message and too much smoke.
The ivory cache is worth roughly $6.5 million, based on prices charged by the Chinese government for raw ivory after its 2008 purchase. (Read National Geographic's "A Voice for Elephants" blog.)
According to Philippine government officials, the ivory was smuggled from various countries, including Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and Uganda. Officials are taking samples for DNA analysis to be sent to Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington.
The crush will be preceded by speeches by Philippine officials as well as by Bonaventure Ebayi, chair of the Lusaka Agreement Task Force, an African regional law enforcement coalition. CITES Secretary General John Scanlon has been invited.
I have been asked to make a presentation focused on my National Geographic story, which highlighted problems in the Philippines. Ramon J.P. Paje, secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, will give the keynote address.
Plans for Eight
The Philippines is both a consumer of ivory (predominantly for carving of Catholic religious icons) and a transit country for smuggled ivory on its way from Africa to China.
During the most recent meeting of CITES parties and of its Standing Committee, the Philippines was identified as one of a so-called "gang of eight" countries with significant roles in the illegal ivory trade.
They range from supplier countries—Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda—to transit and consumer countries: Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and China. These eight nations were required to submit Ivory Action Plans to the CITES Secretariat by May 15, 2013, outlining how they intend to deal with their ivory-trafficking problems.
The CITES Secretariat has refused a National Geographic request to make these plans public.
Instead it responded that it will "provide the Standing Committee with its evaluation and eventual recommendations," even though the CITES Secretariat, overworked and underfunded, has a questionable track record on ivory policymaking. (And in 2011 the Secretariat acknowledged that it "continues to struggle to understand many aspects of the illegal trade in ivory.")
The Philippines' action comes at a time when China has announced that it wants more ivory, not less, and that ivory crime is Africa's problem, not China's.
Around the world, countries argue whether to legalize the ivory trade, but the one thing nearly all of them agree on is in their storerooms.
Few nations have had the courage to destroy what they decry. What conclusion can the world draw other than that blood ivory is indeed an asset? That one day seized ivory will be legal, that one day the elephant will be gone.