Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty Images Reportage/National Geographic

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Confiscated, illegally smuggled ivory is laid out in a parking lot and crushed.

Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty Images Reportage/National Geographic

Pulling Teeth

The Philippines sets a new bar for combatting global ivory crime.

On Friday the Philippines became the world's first non-African country to undertake the destruction of its national ivory stock. The government's action represents the first time an ivory-consuming country or an ivory-transit country has destroyed its seized ivory.

Undertake is a key word because it turns out that it is not easy to destroy ivory. Officials elected not to burn the country's five tons of ivory out of pollution concerns and instead planned to crush it. In a dry run Thursday night, however, it was discovered that while it might be easy to kill an elephant—tens of thousands are poached across Africa each year—it is very difficult to crush its teeth.

And so after a night of sawing at the tusks to weaken them, government workers laid the ivory out in the parking lot of the wildlife department and began pounding it into shards using a backhoe and roller. The process may take a day or more, after which the government has arranged with the Bureau of Animal Industry to cremate the pieces in facilities normally used to dispose of euthanized dogs. Ashes will be spread on the grounds of the wildlife bureau, according to officials, a property that doubles as an animal rescue and a park. A few of the tusks will be used to create a memorial on the site.

"We do this for three reasons," Department of Natural Resources and Environment Secretary J. P. Paje told a very crowded conference room during his keynote address preceding the destruction. The three reasons Paje detailed are:

  • To devalue this "white gold" and curtail the risk that the ivory will be stolen from government storerooms and sold on the black market. (This is a real risk. The five tons to be destroyed represent less than half the total ivory seized in recent years, with the rest having likely been stolen by those employed to watch over it.)
  • To affirm the country's commitment to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
  • To highlight the continued poaching in African countries.

Bonaventure Ebayi—chair of the Lusaka Agreement Task Force, an Africa-based regional law enforcement network—who flew in from Kenya for the event, called the destruction "a model to be replicated around the world."

He underscored the importance of this act by an ivory-consuming country and hoped it could have an impact at least as great as the iconic ivory burn conducted by Kenya in 1989, a destruction that helped launch a global ivory ban later that year.

Heath Bailey of the U.S. Embassy expressed U.S. support for the action and called the Philippines an example for the world. Chrisgel Cruz of the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network agreed.

Officials have credited National Geographic magazine's story Blood Ivory with inspiring their decision to destroy the country's ivory stock. At their request I gave a short talk on the plight of the elephant and the extent of global ivory trafficking. The half-day event was entitled "Battle Against Illegal Ivory Trade," a play on the title of a recent National Geographic/PBS documentary, "Battle for the Elephants." (Related: Watch the documentary.)