This morning, two tons of ivory were crushed in a public event in Central Park in New York. Organised by the State's Department of Environmental Conservation, the confiscated ivory, worth approximately $10 million, is said to have come from approximately 100 poached elephants.
The powder left behind from the crush will fill four public hourglasses that will empty out every 15 minutes, representing how often an elephant is killed.
The destruction of ivory started in 1989, when Kenya burned 12 tonnes of ivory worth $US 3 million in a highly publicised display which, with the assistance of jet fuel, lasted three days and sent a powerful statement to the world that the country would not stand for elephant poaching and categorically called for the elimination of the ivory trade. It effectively sparked an international wave of support and, shortly after the event, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) enacted an ivory trade ban worldwide.
Since then, numerous ivory destruction events have occurred across nations around the world in a sign of solidarity. Most recently, in 2014, China crushed six tonnes of ivory in Guangdong; Vietnam destroyed US $7 million worth of ivory and horn; and in 2015, the U.S., the second-largest domestic market for illegal ivory, destroyed a tonne. The largest of all the burns, however, was the 105-tonne burn in Kenya last year.
While the destruction of ivory has been criticised for various reasons, including its effect on potentially driving market prices up and it being a wastage of funding that could be directed towards national development, there's a widespread consensus that destroying tusks sends the right message that the ivory is worthless if it's not on an elephant. Releasing ivory back into the market would only serve to stimulate both demand and supply.
The ivory trade takes the lives of tens of thousands of African elephants per year. With less than 415,000 African elephants remaining, if all else is constant, within a generation there'll be no more left on the planet. The statistics are harrowing, yet it's no surprise that market forces can push a species to the brink of extinction: it's been a similar and ongoing case for the rhino, tigers, pangolins and many others.
The illegal wildlife trade is often likened to the international drug trade, which is similar in size and driven by sophisticated criminal syndicates. It can be lucrative for those who are a part, and carries substantial worth: up to USD $23 billion annually, as estimated by UNEP and INTERPOL.
The mules of the trade are sometimes caught. Yet as long as the senior criminals at the top of the pyramid and corrupt officials are operating, ivory will surely flow.
Significant changes in policies have been made, however, from the three largest domestic ivory markets: in 2016, the U.S. enforced a near-total ban on ivory; and more recently, China and Hong Kong pledged to ban their domestic trades by 2017 and 2021 respectively. The move to enforce these bans not only represents a marked display of political will from key markets, especially from the East, but it's also the best move that the international community could have hoped for.
The bulk of the trade, however, is illegal, and so bans to stamp out the trade may only curb an extremely small proportion of the tusks streaming from Africa through to retailers and stores. Perhaps then it's not so much trade bans and legislative changes that can make the biggest difference now, but a focus on fighting corruption to ensure the illegal laundering of ivory does not continue, that laws are properly enforced and appropriate penalties are meted out, and that appropriate awareness campaigns continue to stifle demand.
There are no easy answers and no clear paths ahead to ensure the African elephant survives, but the tides are changing in the right direction. The elephant, however, doesn't have time to wait. The truth is clear and stark -- if all variables are held constant and continue as they are, the elephant will be wiped from the planet within a couple of generations. If we can change the game -- now -- then maybe there's hope that they will live on.
Otherwise, the countdown continues.
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