China ivory ban brings hope for elephants

China ivory ban brings hope for elephants

China ivory ban brings hope for elephants
In December 2016, China announced that it was banning all commerce in ivory by the end of 2017, a move that would shut down the world’s largest ivory market and could deal a critical blow to the practice of elephant poaching in Africa. The decision by China follows years of growing international and domestic pressure and gives wildlife protection advocates hope that the threatened extinction of certain elephant populations in Africa can be averted.

“China’s announcement is a game changer for elephant conservation,” Carter Roberts, president and chief executive of the World Wildlife Fund, said in a written statement. According to some estimates, more than 1,00,000 elephants have been wiped out in Africa over the past 10 years in a ruthless scramble for ivory driven by Chinese demand. Elly Pepper, a wildlife advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, New York, USA, wrote that China’s announcement “may be the biggest sign of hope for elephants since the current poaching crisis began.”  Wildlife advocates have said for years that the most important step in putting poachers out of business would be shutting down the ivory industry in China. But the success of the new policy depends on how strictly it is enforced.

Shutting down in phases
Wildlife researchers estimate that 50 to 70% of all smuggled elephant ivory ends up in China, where there are countless ivory workshops and showrooms. In the announcement, the State Council, China’s Cabinet, said the shutdown of the market, which includes all processing and sales, would occur in phases throughout 2017.  In the first step, a designated group of legal ivory processing factories and businesses will be forced to close by March 31, 2017. Under the new rules, people who own ivory products can keep them or give them as gifts, and owners can sell them at supervised auctions after getting official approval. But conservationists believe that the Chinese government is sincere in not allowing any significant domestic ivory market.

China’s move is at least partly a result of negotiations at senior levels between Washington and Beijing. In 2015, when President Xi Jinping of China made a state visit to Washington, USA, he and President Barack Obama agreed that the two nations would impose “nearly complete bans on ivory import and export” and “take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.” Those goals were reiterated in Beijing in June 2016 during a summit meeting between the United States and China that addressed economic and strategic issues. 

Even with the import ban, smuggling continues as long as a domestic market exists. “Demand for elephant ivory has skyrocketed in recent years, spurring poaching levels that are driving elephants towards extinction,” Elly wrote. “And ending the legal ivory trade in China — the world’s largest consumer of elephant ivory — is critical to saving the species.” Illegal ivory ends up on the legal market after being smuggled into the country, chiefly by criminal syndicates. Hong Kong has been a main transit point.

Steady decrease
Corruption and chaos in many parts of Central Africa, where the last great elephant herds roam, are fuelling the trafficking. Poachers and rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Chad and South Sudan have exploited conflicts and a breakdown to massacre thousands of elephants, often using the proceeds from ivory to buy more weapons. Like blood diamonds in West Africa in the late 1990s, ivory has become Africa’s new conflict resource.

Scientists say that for the first time in years, more elephants are being killed than born, with the population steadily decreasing. Tusks are often sold to African middlemen who pay off corrupt government officials either to look the other way or to take part in the smuggling. Elly of the Natural Resources Defense Council urged other nations, including Britain, to follow China’s lead, and said the United States, which has made significant progress on the issue, could do more to bolster enforcement.