France crushes huge illegal ivory haul

PARIS - France fired the latest volley Thursday in the world's uphill battle against African elephant poaching, crushing three tonnes of illegal ivory in a ceremony at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.

The contraband, with an estimated street value of one million euros (US$1.4 million), was fed into a giant crushing machine and ground into tiny fragments to be carted off and incinerated.

It was the first major crushing ceremony of ivory in Europe since a global ivory ban was imposed in 1989.

"With this destruction today... France is sending an unequivocal message to poachers, traffickers and consumers of illicit wildlife products," said French Environment Minister Philippe Martin who attended the event.

"We are resolved to continue the fight against trafficking, and to remove any temptation to recover the seized ivory" for the contraband market.

Africa's elephants are being massacred in droves in a bid to meet surging demand for ivory from the growing economies of Asia, particularly China and Thailand.

Some 22,000 African elephants were killed illegally in 2012, according to a report last year by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which warned of "local extinctions if the present killing rates continue".

The African elephant population is presently estimated at some 500,000 individuals - about half the 1980 total.

Environmentalists say destroying confiscated ivory is the only way of ensuring that the contraband is permanently removed from the market.

"There are several cases of seized ivory being 'lost' from stockpiles, ie stolen, then re-entering illegal trade," wildlife crime specialist Wendy Elliott of green group WWF told AFP by email.

French environmental group Robin des Bois, or "Robin Hood", estimates that France has seized some 17 tonnes of the commodity from smugglers.

The ban has since been partially overturned to allow limited legal sales - a move that many conservationists claim has boosted black-market demand. Most of France's stash has been held in museums or the storerooms of police and judicial agencies.

The destroyed stockpile consisted of 2.3 tonnes or 698 individual tusks, both unadorned and engraved, as well as 15,357 ivory ornaments including bracelets, necklaces and sculptures.

Call for EU action

Martin said his country was the first in Europe since the 1989 ban to destroy seized ivory in such a public gesture, adding he expected other nations will follow suit.

"We hope that this new approach of systematically destroying seized ivory will be extended to rhino horn and other illegal animal products," said Robin des Bois president Jacky Bonnemains.

"We call upon the rest of the European Union to do the same."

France became the latest country to destroy confiscated ivory after China, which crushed a six-tonne pile in January, and the destruction of a similar stockpile by the United States last November.

The Philippines destroyed five tonnes of tusks in June last year, Gabon destroyed 4.8 tonnes in 2012 and Kenya set fire to a pile of similar weight in 2011. Last month, Hong Kong said it would incinerate 28 tonnes within the next two years.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said such projects should only be undertaken after a full and independent audit of the stock so that none gets "lost" in the process, and finds its way back onto the market.

Environmentalists stress that illicit ivory eradication on its own will not stop the elephant massacre.

Consumers must be made aware of the destruction they were causing, said Stephane Ringuet, an expert with Traffic, a wildlife monitoring group.

"The source of the problem is in Asia, where we are seeing a disproportionate increase in demand for ivory," he told AFP.

Between 1989 and 2011, the biggest hauls of illegal ivory were in China, with more than 33,000 tonnes, according to Traffic, and 17,000 tonnes in Hong Kong.