Destroying seized ivory deplorably stupid move

Updated: 2014-05-27 07:11

By Ho Lok-Sang(HK Edition)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

As someone who has studied economics and public policy for several decades, I am appalled and saddened by the decision by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) to incinerate 28 metric tons of ivory seized by customs officers over the years. The value of the ivory was reported to be in excess of HK$200 million, but this is beside the point. The point is that the AFCD is endangering the lives of wild elephants in the name of protecting them. That is why it is deplorably stupid.

The AFCD has kept the confiscated ivory for years, and the stockpile has been growing at an alarming rate. In 2013 alone, the authorities intercepted about 8 metric tons of smuggled ivory. The government apparently did not know what to do with it. The decision to incinerate the ivory, rather than selling it on the open market, was welcome news for poachers and smugglers. Their biggest worry is if such stockpiles are sold on the open market, their profits will fall and their "business model" will no longer work.

Hong Kong was, of course, not the first place to destroy seized ivory. Seldom have the SAR's bureaucrats been creative and bold enough to introduce new measures to deal with the city's problems. According to National Geographic, Kenya, Zambia, Gabon, the Philippines, the United States, China, France, Chad and Belgium have jointly destroyed a total of 49 metric tons over the years. The 28 metric tons to be destroyed in Hong Kong is more than half the cumulative total of all nine nations combined.

Destroying seized ivory deplorably stupid move

Since 1976, the Hong Kong government has started regulating the ivory trade. In recent years, it totally banned the trade. I applaud efforts to clamp down on the illegal trade, but destroying the ivory is stupid. This is because not only will it not save the lives of the elephants which were killed, but it will also drive up the price of illegal ivory. This will only make poaching and smuggling more profitable.

Of course, keeping the stockpile is more stupid because this has really no difference from incinerating the ivory. It is actually worse because it is costly in terms of space and security. For poachers and smugglers, any acts which keep the stockpile from the market will be welcomed. But the last thing they want to see is a decisive move to legalize the sale of seized ivory.

I would, therefore, urge all those concerned about wildlife preservation to think about appointing specially authorized sales outlets to sell certified ivory seized by customs officers. The revenue collected from this should be used to fight poaching and smuggling. I strongly urge all governments to come to an understanding that depressing the price of ivory is really the only way to save elephants' lives.

I would suggest that unauthorized points of sales should stay illegal, trade in illegal ivory should remain illegal, and poaching should be heavily penalized.

Destroying the smuggled ivory is said to "send a clear message that ivory trafficking will not be tolerated". (China Daily, Jan 7, 2014) While this may have some social and emotional appeal, it will endanger the lives of wild elephants. If we are sincere about saving elephants from poachers, we need to question whether destroying the seized ivory will really reduce the profitability of the "poach and smuggle" business model.

We also have to send a clear message about ivory poaching and smuggling. But that message will be delivered more effectively by seizing the ivory and punishing the smugglers and poachers. We also need to remember that high expected pay-offs are the biggest incentive for poaching. Destroying seized ivory will only remove the threat of declining ivory prices. If there was an "ivory futures market", the price of ivory futures would shoot up and encourage more poaching. This is simple economics.

Unfortunately it does not seem to be well-understood by conservationists. Alex Hofford, a consultant with WildAid and co-founder of the NGO Hong Kong for Elephants, recently confused supply and demand. He was reported to have said: "All these big ivory destruction events going on around the world are certainly having a positive effect on reducing demand." (by Laurel Neme for National Geographic published May 14, 2014) Sorry, I do not understand how destroying the ivory will reduce the demand for ivory. I can only see that it will reduce supply. The people interested in buying ivory certainly know ivory trafficking is illegal. The message could be interpreted as ivory will only become more difficult to get on the black market. So hoarding ivory is a good bet for speculative price gains.

The author is director of the Center for Public Policy Studies at Lingnan University.

(HK Edition 05/27/2014 page7)