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Hong Kong To Destroy Ivory Stockpile, But Will It Curb Demand In China?

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Hong Kong To Destroy Ivory Stockpile, But Will It Curb Demand In China?


Hong Kong To Destroy Ivory Stockpile, But Will It Curb Demand In China?

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Over the next couple of years, Hong Kong will burn 28 tons of elephant ivory - ivory that's been confiscated. That's more than any government has ever destroyed. Other nations including the U.S., France, and China are also destroying stockpiles of ivory. Conservationists hope this will slow the furious pace of poaching in Africa and limit demand for ivory products, especially in China. NPR's Frank Langfitt has the story from Hong Kong.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: A few months ago, 11 year old Lucy Skrine was walking through the bustling streets of Hong Kong with fellow animal activists. They were holding signs in Chinese and English that read: Say No to Ivory.

LUCY SKRINE: And there was one mainland Chinese that came around and she said: Weishenme bu keyi mai xiangya? Which is like why can't we buy ivory?

LANGFITT: Lucy, who is in sixth-grade, explained that poachers had to kill the elephant to extract the tusks.

SKRINE: When she learned this, she was like, what? I thought they fell out of the elephants - which kind of shows that they don't really know the background of the ivory that they're buying.

LANGFITT: Lucy and other activists gathered around 64,000 petition signatures, calling for the government to destroy the stockpile of seized ivory in Hong Kong, one of Asia's most sophisticated and wealthy cities. Initially, some officials resisted.


LANGFITT: But after the Chinese government crushed six tons last month next door in Guangdong province, Hong Kong decided to liquidate its stockpile. Lucy thinks officials here were embarrassed.

SKRINE: China is the major international black market for ivory. If they can manage to destroy their ivory, well, it kind of shames the Hong Kong people.

ALEX HOFFORD: Hi, I'm Alex Hofford and I'm a program director for Hong Kong for Elephants.

LANGFITT: Hofford's group pushed hard for the burning. He says it's designed to drive down demand in Hong Kong and on the mainland. The logic is based in part on a poll by National Geographic and The International Fund for Animal Welfare, in which one in five Chinese said they would stop buying ivory if their leaders denounced it.

HOFFORD: That thing has effectively happened with the China crush at the beginning of the month and Hong Kong also committing to destroying their ivory. Governments are leading by example. And so we think there's a large segment of the population that maybe will now be thinking twice about buying it.

LANGFITT: I overy has long been a status symbol in China but rising incomes are driving even greater demand. Many wealthy Chinese are buying ivory statues and carvings as investments. But predicting behavior in such an opaque market is trick, and, Hofford says, initially, the move to destroy so much ivory drove prices in the wrong direction here.

HOFFORD: We heard that actually in the short term ivory prices have maybe gone up by about 10 percent, but we think that's just a knee-jerk reaction from the trade, but what hasn't really translated into the market yet is the drop in demand due to less buyers. We expect that to come through in about the next six months.

BRENDAN MOYLE: The most likely impact is it will have no effect at all.

LANGFITT: Brendan Moyle teaches economics and wildlife management at Massey University in New Zealand. He says destroying ivory to drive down demand doesn't make a lot of economic sense. And that some governments may be doing so, so they can at least appear to be trying to reduce the slaughter.

MOYLE: It's an easy way for governments of any kind to get a reputation for doing something. So I think there are still some easy political points.

LANGFITT: Moyle says recent data on seizures and sales suggest dealers are hording ivory for the long haul.

MOYLE: That means they are very confident that sales of ivory are going to stay up. You know, that they're banking on us being wrong. And they are probably a lot more informed about the market than we are and that's actually a frightening prospect.

LANGFITT: In the meantime, organizations like the International Fund for Animal Welfare continue to try to educate Chinese consumers by various means, including billboards. One in Shanghai's financial district depicts a handcuff made of ivory. The message: buying supports crime. Shi Yuan, a young professional who opposes the ivory trade, thinks the ad campaign could be helpful.

SHI YUAN: (foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: When ordinary consumers are about to purchase ivory, she says, they may have a second thought. But Shi, who wears a long red coat and black leather boots, says the factors driving ivory sales in China - including the desire to flaunt wealth - are powerful.

YUAN: (speaking Chinese)

LANGFITT: Destroying ivory will definitely push up the price of the existing stockpile, she says. For those who have to have ivory products, they will still throw around a lot of money to get them, because the higher the price, the more those people can show off their status. Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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