Part of a shipment of ivory tusks seized by customs officials in Hong Kong in January, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Bobby Yip)
Now, officials in Hong Kong have announced plans to burn up 28 tonnes of ivory in an effort to deter elephant poaching — by far the largest destruction ever.
Unlike previous ivory destructions, this one will take place at regular intervals over the course of one or two years, AFP reports.
"We hope to send a strong message that illegal elephant poaching to harvest their tusks, to illegally buy and sell and to transport ivory through Hong Kong... is not allowed," said Paul Shin, the chair of the region's Endangered Species Advisory Committee.
The announcement is particularly noteworthy, according to AFP, because Hong Kong has long been a global hub of the illegal ivory trade, acting as a port to convey tusks to mainland China, where they're carved into religious and cultural figures. In recent years, seizures have risen steadily, with a record 8,041 kilograms confiscated in 2013.
"I wish I brought some champagne!" Sharon Kwok of the animal rights activist group Wild-Aid told AFP. "I applaud the government's decision, it is a very good first step to take."
The decision to destroy the ivory came after a period of prolonged pressure from animal rights groups, and not all of them are happy with the timeline for the destruction.
"Whilst we applaud the government in taking this first step, the timeframe is too long," Alex Hofford, of Hong Kong for Elephants, told AFP. A government spokesperson told AFP the two-year timeframe was due to limited incinerator capacity.
A global ban on the international ivory trade has been in place since 1989, although there have been occasional sell-offs permitted by the UN-backed Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Those sell-offs account for a parallel legal ivory trade in China, which can help drive the demand for illegal ivory that's been "laundered" with fake provenance certificates, the Telegraph reports.
According to Wild-Aid, as many as 35,000 African elephants are killed each year for their ivory, a number that's been steadily increasing. Because of poaching and other causes, World Wildlife Fund estimates there could be as few as 470,000 African elephants left in the wild — down from as many as five million in the 1930s.