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Philippines Cancels Planned Burn of Confiscated Elephant Tusks after Clean-Air Groups Object

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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elephant with tusksThis Philippine government this weekend cancelled plans to burn $10 million worth of seized elephant tusks after several clean-air groups cried foul.

The Philippines isn’t the only country trying to destroy its ivory stockpiles. Gabon conducted a massive ivory burn last year—an act that  their government said sent a message to poachers in that country that wildlife crime would no longer be tolerated. The Philippines burn had similar goals. “Our decision to destroy these ivory tusks that entered the country illegally is to show to the whole world that the Philippines will not tolerate illegal wildlife trade,” said Ramon Paje, secretary of the country’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, in a media statement last week. A National Geographic investigation last year revealed that millions of dollars’ worth of illegal ivory flows into the Philippines every year, mainly for use in religious icons.

An estimated 40,000 elephants are killed every year for their ivory tusks. Controlling and eliminating the demand for ivory in countries like the Philippines and China will prove essential in preventing the animals from going extinct.

Objections emerged almost immediately after Paje’s announcement. The EcoWaste Coalition and other environmental groups filed a complaint that burning the ivory would be illegal under the country’s Clean Air Act and that the event would send a message that open burning of trash is acceptable. Secretary Paje accommodated that request. “I have already instructed the PAWB (Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau) to forego the ceremonial burning,” he told the Sun Star on Sunday. “But just the same, the confiscated tusks weighing about five tons will be crushed as planned using road rollers.”

The environmental groups praised the quick decision and used it as a call to further action in a post on the EcoWaste Coalition’s blog. “May this incident ignite a nationwide flame of awareness and action to stop any form of burning that puts all of us in harm’s way, such as waste-to-energy incineration and the operation of more coal-fired power plants,” wrote Gloria Estenzo-Ramos of the Philippine Earth Justice Center, who also complained about the country’s “largely unimplemented environmental laws.” Von Hernandez, president of the EcoWaste Coalition, added “we hope this translates to a wide ranging directive against the usual practice of burning confiscated goods.”

manila air pollutionThe Philippines does have notoriously bad air quality, but a report from the country’s climate change commissioner earlier this year linked most of the pollution to the more than half a million diesel-powered vehicles in and around Manila.

The planned crushing of the tusks is still scheduled for June 21, but meanwhile, one other objection has arisen. Rodel Batocabe, vice chair of the government’s Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, says the tusks should be donated to museums, schools and NGOs to teach people about how the ivory trade endangers wild elephants. “These are priceless treasures that will be put to waste if we destroy them,” he told Inquirer News.

What do you think? Does the public relations value of a massive ivory burn outweigh the clean-air concerns? Will seeing the ivory crushed have the same effect on viewers? Would the tusks be better put to use as educational tools, or would that just create more opportunities for them to be stolen again? Do climate and clean-air concerns trump wildlife conservation efforts, or do they go hand in hand? We look forward to your comments.

Photos: Elephant and tusks by Samantha Beddoes. Manila air pollution by Keith Bacango. Both used under Creative Commons license

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. geowiz875 12:24 pm 06/18/2013

    This is a tough call: a fire would surely make the evening TV news and I don’t think that the calcium added to the air would cause appreciable damage.
    A similarly knotty problem is: should we use a paper cup made from trees or a plastic cup made from oil/gas/coal?
    And consider all the processing along from original resource to final product. All the processing and environmental impacts.
    In fact, please make this a blog project. I do not know the answer so let’s get some heavy thinking going here.

    Link to this
  2. 2. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 1:35 pm 06/18/2013

    Hi TKerr. You’re right, everything is a trade-off! It definitely could be a whole new blog, although the most obvious name (“Better or Worse?”) might annoy a few eye doctors.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Shai_Panela 3:33 am 06/19/2013

    Hi! John. Thank you for taking interest in our country’s story. However, our DENR Secretary’s name is Ramon Paje. Not Page. :) (Check this out:

    As for your question, tough call. But I’d like to think that it’s better to put the tusks to good use in museums, schools and even labs. I am not really sure I understand why do they have to burn or even crush the tusks for PR.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Shai_Panela 3:34 am 06/19/2013

    If you really want to pursue this story, I think I can help you. :)

    Link to this
  5. 5. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 8:39 am 06/19/2013

    Thanks, Shai. I corrected that name.

    As for putting the tusks to use, we now know that about half of the ivory confiscated in the Philippines over the past few years has taken a walk and disappeared from customs warehouses. In other countries museums have been robbed of ivory and rhino horns. My take: if it’s not 100% secure, it needs to be destroyed.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Shai_Panela 11:20 pm 06/19/2013

    Thanks again, John. Being a Filipino and knowing all about these issues sometimes makes me jaded and cynical on how to go about these things. Compromise and trade-off. I’d like to say environmental groups, the government and other advocates can hit a common ground.

    Thanks for your insights. :)

    Link to this

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