Why 5,000 pounds of ivory just went up in flames

Officials in Mozambique burned almost three tons of elephant ivory and rhinoceros horns on Monday, part of their ongoing efforts to reduce poaching.

Grant Lee Neuenburg/Reuters
Conservation officials look on as they burn thousands of pounds of seized ivory and rhino horn in Maputo, July 6, 2015.

Over 5,000 pounds of ivory and rhino horns were set ablaze by government officials Monday in a public demonstration against poaching in Mozambique. 

"Today sends a signal," Celso Ismael Correia, Mozambique's minister of land, environment and rural development said in a statement. "Mozambique will not tolerate poachers, traffickers, and the organised criminals [who] pay them to kill our wildlife and threaten our communities."

Earlier this year, officials reported a that Mozambique's elephant population has plummeted catastrophically over the past five years, from slightly over 20,000 to around 10,300. If this pattern continues, officials predict elephants will become extinct in Mozambique within the next generation. The rhino population has already been eliminated completely; Mozambique lost its last rhino in 2013.  

In an effort to save their remaining elephants, the Mozambican government has taken a number of steps over the past year to combat the illegal ivory and rhino horn trade. A new law passed in June 2014 criminalized poaching and trafficking, and in September, a two-day anti-poaching seminar hosted by Mozambique’s attorney general brought together more than 150 representatives from a wide range of government and civil society organizations to analyze the key challenges in prosecuting wildlife trafficking.

Government officials have deployed a new Mozambican environmental police unit to better implement the new anti-poaching law, and are improving the training, equipping, and leadership of scouts guarding protected areas. 

Additionally, the nation has partnered with the neighboring countries of Tanzania and South Africa to strengthen cross-border collaboration to combat poaching and trafficking. The government is also working with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Stop Ivory to inventory ivory stocks.

These efforts are producing results, say experts. Mozambican police recently seized 1.3 tons (65 pieces) of ivory and rhino horn in Matola, marking the largest amount of ivory seized in the country's history and the largest-ever rhino horn seizure. They were burned on Monday, part of the 5,367 pounds of elephant tusks and 427 pounds of rhino horn to go up in flames. 

Mozambique is not the only nation to publicly destroy confiscated stockpiles to make a statement against the illegal trade. Last month, US officials and conservationists ground more than one ton of ivory to dust in Times Square. Kenya, China, France, Ethiopia, and eight other governments have conducted similar demonstrations in recent years.

Destroying confiscated ivory also ensures that it won’t be stolen and sold, a challenge Mozambique has faced in the past. In May, several police officers were arrested for stealing rhino horns from a stash that they were guarding at the time.

Conservationists debate the effectiveness of publicly destroying seized ivory stashes. Some argue that these demonstrations show no evidence of discouraging poachers.

"On the surface, destroying ivory stockpiles seems to be a positive action, if only because it creates conversation and awareness about the illegal trade," writes Karl Mathieson for The Guardian. On the other hand, "Symbolism only goes so far."

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