When the Philippines destroyed its five-ton stockpile of seized elephant tusks on June 21, it marked not only the first time an ivory-consuming nation took such a public action but also the first time a country took key steps to guarantee that it could not re-enter the black market.
Before this, all previous large-scale public destructions were by fire. The burning of 12 tons of elephant tusks by Kenya in 1989 captured media attention and helped lead to the international ivory trade ban the following year.
It also set the standard for future destruction of ivory stockpiles. Zambia burned 9.5 tons in 1992; Kenya, another 5 tons in 2011; Gabon, 4.8 tons in 2012.
The Philippines, rather than opting for the visually evocative burning of a massive pyre, decided to crush its ivory with road equipment and burn what remained.
A Durable Substance
Unless the fire is sustained at high temperatures for long periods of time, burning does not destroy elephant ivory. Instead, it chars the exterior and leaves the inside intact.
Consider what happens with human teeth. Whether subjected to fiery car crashes or raging house fires, these tiny pieces endure. That’s why they’re used for identification when everything else is annihilated.
Even in the cremation process, teeth survive. (A processor often pulverizes the unburned teeth into a fine powder.)
In the past, ivory sellers in African markets demonstrated that their products were real by lighting a match and passing the flame over their tusk or carving, which showed no effect.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) National Wildlife Forensics Lab confirmed the difficulties of burning elephant ivory during experiments it conducted under controlled conditions at a specialized arson facility in 2008.
Using oxygen-enriched propane to generate ultra-high temperatures (roughly 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit), an ivory tusk lost about a quarter ounce of its weight per minute.
At that rate, depending on the temperature and duration of the fire, and the size of the ivory pieces, it could take months to burn one ton of ivory.
That’s why questions persist about whether all previously “burned” ivory was destroyed, and if some might have been smuggled back into the black market.
But those doubts remain just that—uncertainties—because it ‘s difficult to prove forensically that a smuggled tusk came from a burned stockpile.
About one-third of an elephant’s tusk is hidden inside its skull, and typically, DNA is extracted from the blood and tissue remaining on the tusk.
But burning degrades DNA, making it virtually impossible to extract viable samples. (To prevent future questions the Philippines took DNA samples from the tusks before destroying them.)
Although other methods to identify elephant ivory as previously burned do exist, they haven’t yet been scientifically verified for use in a court of law.
“To really destroy ivory,” said Ken Goddard, Director of the FWS National Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, “it needs to be crushed.”
Yet even crushing is difficult, as the Philippines discovered during a failed test a day before the destruction event. Authorities experimented with a road roller, but it got nowhere.
Officials then spent the evening sawing tusks, assuming that smaller pieces would be easier to crush.
That didn’t work.
At the main event, the road roller left the ivory pieces unchanged, so workers switched to hammering the tusk fragments with the scoop of a backhoe—and then incinerating them at a crematorium for animals.
Another option that might work, Goddard says, is burning the ivory first to make it brittle, then pulverizing it to dust with a bulldozer.
While ivory dust (usually from the carving process) has reportedly been used in traditional Asian medicines, it is not a highly sought-after ingredient. And it seems unlikely that powdered ivory could be reconstituted for carving.
Momentum Building Despite Challenges
“When a country [destroys] ivory, it means they put behind them any chance of underhanded dealings,” Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, told me last year. “It’s not like pretending to have a ban and then selling the ivory under the carpet, which often happens.”
There are many instances of portions of national ivory stockpiles going missing.
In Zambia, three tons disappeared from the government stockpile in 2012. That year, Mozambique lost more than one ton.
Since 2005, more than seven tons disappeared from the Philippines’ stockpile of 13.1 tons, which is why no more than five tons was destroyed last month.
Securing ivory stockpiles is a significant challenge.
A 2013 CNN report on Hong Kong’s stockpile noted that “high-profile thefts in Zambia and Botswana have highlighted the security headache and the drain on resources that ivory stockpiles pose for countries.”
In 2010, The East African reported Tanzania spent $75,000 annually to secure its 12,000-tusk stockpile.
Destroying ivory stockpiles removes that cost and eliminates opportunities for corruption and theft while at the same time reinforcing a country’s commitment to the ivory trade ban.
Yet some countries are reluctant to do so because their stockpiles represent a potential income stream.
Tanzania and Zambia, for example, recently sought to sell their stockpiles, arguing that those funds could help finance conservation efforts.
But keeping the option open sends a mixed message that hinders implementation of the trade ban. In effect, this dangling revenue “carrot” signals support of a future with ivory sales and tacitly promotes the black market.
Last March, the Republic of Congo was expected to declare its intention to destroy more than 5,000 tusks.
But when Congo’s environment minister arrived at the CITES Conference of Parties in Thailand, he said there would be no ivory burn any time soon. He gave no reason for the shift, but rumors suggest pressure from consuming countries may have contributed to the change.
The debate continues, with destruction a promising yet tricky option.
Earlier this year, the U.S. decided to destroy its almost six tons of African and Asian ivory tusks and carvings, seized over the years by the FWS.
No public announcement has yet been made, however, because the where, when, and how have not been finalized—largely because of the difficulties of destroying the ivory.
Whatever the U.S. or other countries decide to do about their ivory, the Philippines’ example can help point leaders in a positive direction.