Last week, Sri Lanka joined a growing list of nations taking a stand against the illegal ivory trade, becoming the first South Asian country to destroy its stockpile of seized elephant tusks and the first in the world to offer a formal apology to the deceased elephants.
Beginning with two minutes of silence, the ceremony proceeded with funerary rites and a Buddhist ritual performed by the Venerable Omalpe Sobitha Thero.
As National Geographic reported, Thero said, “We destroyed those innocent lives to take those tusks. We have to ask for pardon from them.”
Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian leaders attended the ceremony, joining Sri Lankan and U.S. officials including Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife Gamini Jayawickremea Perera, Minister of Finance Ravi Karunanayake, and CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon. After being crushed for over seven hours, the 359 elephant tusks were incinerated for later deposition into the Indian Ocean.
The act signals an important shift for South Asia and Sri Lanka—a popular transit hub for illegal ivory—to combat the illicit ivory trade through a zero-tolerance policy. Destroying this stockpile of ivory ensures that the contraband cannot be profited from, while also sending the powerful message that future contraband has no value in this prime South Asian market.
As John Scanlon stated during his ceremonial remarks, “The international community has recognized that illicit trafficking in wildlife is not only having a devastating impact on the African elephant and other affected wild animals and plants…. It must stop and the international community is demonstrating an ever increasing determination to end this illicit trade.”
The 1.5 tonnes of Tanzanian ivory worth over $2.6 million was seized in 2012 by Sri Lankan customs officials and was reportedly headed to the Sri Dalada Maligawa Buddhist Temple. Opponents of the donation claimed that the act violated CITES, while others feared the stockpile would simply enter the black market. Soon after, National Geographic exposed the truth about the ivory trade within the global religious market, which prompted the current Sri Lankan government’s dramatic policy shift. Now other nations are following suit. In April 2016, Kenya is set to destroy 120 tonnes of illegal ivory, representing approximately 4,000 animals. It will be the largest stockpile to be destroyed in history.
While the hunting of elephants for ivory was banned in 1989, the decimation of African elephant populations continues today (and one-off sales of ivory stockpiles and trade in old ivory are still allowed). The WWF estimates that over $10 billion in illegal ivory is traded annually, causing the deaths of around 35,000 elephants each year.
The battle against the sale of illegal ivory has extended to social media. This week activists took action against Yahoo Japan, accusing the multinational conglomerate under Yahoo Inc. of profiting from the global ivory trade through their online auction sites. Avaaz.org has launched an online petition, and has already received over 1.2 million signatures, urging signatories to take to Twitter and Facebook to share the cause and stop the slaughter.
Sri Lanka’s no-tolerance policy and bold apology to African elephant populations is a positive shift, but it’s clear that ending the ivory trade worldwide will require more nations to step up and destroy their stockpiles, and citizens to demand similar no-tolerance policies from their governments when it comes to poaching and trade. It’s working for the Rhinos of South Africa, and now saving the elephants, it seems, will take a little help from us all.