Photos by Kin Cheung for Associated Press

Hong Kong’s 30-ton stash of illegal ivory is going up in smoke. The semi-autonomous Chinese region begins on Thursday the first of a dozen incinerations to rid itself of the contraband material—a “clear message that the consumption of ivory is rapidly becoming taboo in Hong Kong society,” according to Alex Hofford, director of Hong Kong for Elephants, a coalition of local anti-ivory groups. One of Asia’s wealthiest cities, Hong Kong is both a consumer and key transport hub for illegal ivory entering China, where the tusks have long been held as status symbols. As a result, Hong Kong maintains one of the largest stockpiles of seized ivory in the world, one whose destruction is expected to be both complicated and drawn-out.

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Like other ivory-stock-destroying governments before it, response to Hong Kong’s decision have been mixed. While supporters of the scheme say that eliminating stockpiles shows a nation’s commitment to stemming black-market crimes against wildlife, opponents argue that eliminating stockpiles will only drive up the prices of remaining ivory, not to mention rub out a potential source of revenue for conservation causes.

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Roughly 150 invited guests will attend the Destruction of Confiscated Ivory Launching Ceremony at the Tsing Yi Chemical Waste Treatment Center in Hong Kong’s port. Wong Kam-sing, the city’s secretary for the environment, will officiate the incineration, which will occur in 3-ton batches inside a two-story rotary kiln that normally deals with chemical and marine wastes.

Speakers will include John Scanlon, secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and Meng Xianlin, executive director general of the Endangered Species Import and Export Management Office of the People’s Republic of China.

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“The destruction of confiscated elephant ivory, coupled with the seizure of ivory and prosecution of offenders, sends a powerful message that Hong Kong does not accept and will not tolerate this illegal trade or the devastating impact it is having on the African elephant and on the livelihoods of rural communities,” Scanlon told National Geographic.

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Because modern forensics can be used to identify the age and origin of ivory, illegally traded elephant ivory will “never have any commercial value, and the return on the ‘investment’ will most likely be imprisonment, heavy fines, and seized assets,” he adds.

[Via National Geographic]