Workers destroy confiscated ivory and ivory sculptures in Dongguan in Guangdong province on Jan. 6. (STRINGER/CHINA/REUTERS)

China, the world’s biggest consumer of illegal ivory, crushed six tons of tusks and carved ornaments in public Monday, in an event that signaled it would do more to join global efforts to protect African elephants from rampant poaching.

About 25,000 of the estimated 500,000 elephants in Africa are illegally slaughtered each year for their tusks, conservationists say. It is a $10 billion industry that draws in global crime syndicates and African rebel groups, and threatens to wipe out elephants from parts of the continent within a decade.

Although Chinese authorities have stepped up anti-trafficking efforts in recent years, the trade in illegal ivory has continued, in part because many Chinese people do not know elephants have to die for the ivory to be taken.

On Monday, workers in overalls fed scores of weighty tusks and hundreds of small, intricately carved objects into a large, noisy green crushing machine in front of a crowd of officials, diplomats, conservationists and journalists in this small town just outside the southern city of Guangzhou.

“We also hope this event will raise the public awareness of conservation and intensify the responsibilities of enforcement agencies,” said Zhao Shucong, director of the State Forestry Administration. Zhao admitted that ivory smuggling was “still raging” and said that China was “in urgent need of sincere collaboration with different countries and international organizations” to support elephant conservation.

Past efforts to curb ivory poaching have at times disintegrated into finger-pointing between officials in Africa — where corruption and weak law enforcement have allowed poachers to prosper — and countries such as China, where most of the ivory ends up.

But in the past year, the rapid decline in the elephant population has brought a new mood of global cooperation, with ivory burning or crushing events taking place in the United States, Tanzania and elsewhere, international conservation officials said. Monday’s ceremony marked the first time that China had taken such an action involving contraband ivory.

President Obama signed an executive order in July to release an extra $10 million to fight wildlife trafficking in Africa, calling the situation an escalating international crisis. For the first time, the administration last year raised the issue of curbing demand to a separate subject in its dialogue with China; in September, former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton announced a global effort to curb the practice.

Ivory trade legal in China

Part of the problem, conservationists say, is that China continues to allow a legal, licensed trade in ivory. It classifies ivory carving as part of its traditional culture and allows 37 workshops to operate, mainly using a stockpile of ivory it bought in 2008 during a period when elephant numbers were relatively healthy and limited international trade was allowed.

This legal trade has allowed a parallel illegal trade to flourish, with some carving workshops supplementing their meager government supplies with ivory obtained from poaching, conservationists say. In a recent visit to an antiques market in Beijing, ivory ornaments were available without licenses. On the Internet, ivory ornaments are sold without licenses, with sellers using descriptive code words, such as plastic.

The Chinese ivory-crushing event appeared to have been hastily scheduled ahead of a similar event in France and a global summit on the subject next month in London. Fifty heads of state have been invited to the summit, which will have British Prime Minister David Cameron as host and Britain’s Prince Charles in attendance. Conservationists called it a significant step.

“It sends a very strong signal to the world, but most importantly to the Chinese people, about the commitment of the Chinese government to be part of the solution to this global problem,” Bryan Arroyo, assistant director of international affairs in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said before the crushing. “China is at a pivotal point that could make a huge difference.”

John Scanlon, secretary general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, said there was strong evidence of the involvement of organized crime syndicates — and sometimes rebel groups — in wildlife crime.

Scanlon applauded China for a rise in seizures of illegal ivory, as well as in prosecutions and convictions. He expressed optimism that global efforts to combat the trade could start to bring down the rates of illegal killing. “We are starting to hear the right noises and see right measures put in place,” he said. “If we keep on the trajectory we are now on, we can turn it around.”

Still, success is not assured. Demand for ivory has grown in China along with its economy, and an increasing tendency of newly affluent Chinese to give expensive items, such as ivory ornaments, as gifts to government or business contacts.

Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid, a San Francisco-based group that has been working to raise awareness in China, said Beijing must impose a complete ban on ivory sales if poaching is to end.

With attitudes within China changing, Knights said, such a move is not out of the question. Last year, China banned shark fin soup and foodstuffs made from endangered wildlife products from being served at official banquets. It has also begun sending text messages to Chinese cellphone users entering Africa instructing them not to take home ivory, rhino horn or other illegal wildlife products.

“We could be on the cusp of real change here, with the shark fin and the ivory, where China goes from being one of the world’s largest consumers of wildlife to a leading protector of wildlife,” Knights said. “If they turn the corner on this issue, it can really change the world. That is really positive and exciting.”