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Gov’t gets heat for ivory decision

Officers from Cambodian customs display some of the 1.3 tonnes of African elephant tusks seized from containers shipped from Mozambique to Phnom Penh last year. Wildlife alliance
Officers from Cambodian customs display some of the 1.3 tonnes of African elephant tusks seized from containers shipped from Mozambique to Phnom Penh last year. Wildlife Alliance

Gov’t gets heat for ivory decision

Cambodia, home to a number of large ivory busts in recent years, has rejected calls to destroy its stockpiles – the preferred method internationally for dealing with the seized contraband – with government officials saying they plan to exhibit it instead.

Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday endorsed a Ministry of Environment recommendation to keep the ivory for “scientific research” and exhibitions.

Environment Minister Say Samal yesterday said there were recent requests from the NGO Wildlife Alliance, USAID and the US Embassy to burn the ivory, but he rejected them.

“We don’t believe in burning [it], and as a sovereign country, we should make our own decision,” he said. “Why should it be burned?”

Samal said the Kingdom believes in using the ivory for educational purposes, such as for scientific research and for display at museums.

“We will be working with domestic museums to see if they are interested, but we don’t share the view that the display promotes the killing of elephants,” he said.

While the research on the effectiveness of destroying ivory as a deterrent is not universally accepted, numerous African countries where ivory is poached and many countries that intercept illegal shipments routinely destroy their stockpiles.

Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday during a Ministry of Interior event also questioned why the country should destroy the confiscated ivory.

“I heard that America wanted us to destroy it. No. America has no right to order [the] Khmer administration,” he said, adding that he had agreed to keep it for exhibitions “so that people know it’s from South Africa and was busted in Cambodia”.

Rhinoceros horns would also be displayed, he said, adding that some of the endangered items from Africa are almost extinct, which is why the Kingdom prefers to “take care of” the ivory.

He said that other countries would be allowed to borrow the ivory for their own exhibitions, if the request was made.

Suwanna Gauntlett, CEO for Wildlife Alliance, confirmed that her organisation has made several requests to the Cambodian government and to the US Embassy to destroy the confiscated ivory, but declined to further comment on the issue.

Jay Raman, spokesman for the US Embassy, said he couldn’t provide information on the topic yesterday as the embassy was closed.

Several leaders with other wildlife NGOs declined to comment or referred questions to other people.

Sarah Brook, a technical adviser with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said that she would be “more concerned” about the security of keeping the ivory.

“I would doubt that museums would be able to keep it secure and prevent it from returning to the trade,” she said.

Usual practice in handling illegal ivory is to destroy it or send it back to the country of origin, she said.

“A large number of countries are destroying it to send a message that this is an illegal activity that won’t be tolerated and prevent it from returning to the trade,” she said.

Meanwhile, an official from the Department of Customs and Excise, who declined to be named, yesterday said authorities are still searching for Nguyen Tien Chuong, 31, the suspect believed to be behind a massive 1.3-tonne ivory bust in December.

“We are hunting for him,” he said.

“The ministries of environment and interior had a meeting about this matter to [take] further measures.”

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