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By Venus Wu and Clare Baldwin
DONGGUAN/HONG KONG (Reuters) - China crushed 6.2 metric tonnes (6.83 tons) of confiscated ivory on Monday in the first such public destruction of any part of its stockpile, after the country's fitful enforcement efforts led experts to question its commitment to stamping out smuggling.
Animal rights groups say China's growing appetite for the contraband material has fuelled a surge in poaching in Africa.
Monday's event was attended by representatives of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), non-government groups and the media.
"China is sending a very powerful message both domestically, to the Chinese people, and internationally, that it is not prepared to tolerate the illegal trade in elephant ivory," said CITES Secretary General John Scanlon.
The function, held on the outskirts of a southern industrial city, featured elephant tusks placed in the shape of a flower on an outdoor stage, surrounded by ivory statues of the Buddha.
But China, ranked as the world's biggest end-market for poached ivory by conservation body the World Wildlife Fund, still has work to do, some anti-smuggling officials said.
"There is an increasing trend of ivory being smuggled to China," said Yang Liuying, an anti-smuggling researcher for the Chinese customs department.
"We have to strengthen our efforts in this area. I can say that there is a 10 percent increase every year."
China has been making products from elephant ivory for almost 5,000 years, an official of the country's Endangered Species Import and Export Management Office told official news agency Xinhua in November.
Crushed tusks also have a small role in traditional Chinese medicine.
Although China signed the CITES pact banning global trade in ivory in 1981, it got an exemption from the body in 2008 to buy 62 tonnes of ivory from several African nations. It releases a portion of that stockpile each year to government-licensed ivory carving factories.
China has said the factories only use ivory acquired legally, and in no way encourage or worsen the problem of elephant poaching in Africa.
Although China has said it will jail convicted ivory smugglers for life, it has stopped short of saying it will ban the trade outright.
Demand for ivory has grown along with growth in China's population and economy, conservation group Save the Elephants said in a statement.
China faced pressure last spring when it was one of eight Asian and African countries identified by CITES as a primary source, transit or import country for illegal ivory, and was asked to submit a plan outlining how it would better address regulation and enforcement.
About 22,000 elephants were illegally killed in 2012, a CITES monitoring program showed. The total population of African elephants is now estimated at between 420,000 and 650,000.
Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China and a major transit point for illegal ivory, is due to discuss disposal plans for its stockpile of more than 32.6 tonnes of seized ivory on January 23.
(Reporting by Clare Baldwin, Venus Wu and Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)