China Makes a Move That Could Save African Elephants From Extinction

The world’s largest ivory market signals it will ban ivory sales but has yet to supply the details.

China crushed 1.5 tons of confiscated ivory on Friday. (Photo: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

May 29, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

The Chinese government indicated on Friday that it intends to end legal sales of elephant ivory in the country.

So far it’s just words, but those words could have a huge impact on the dwindling African elephant population.

As the world’s largest market for ivory and ivory products, such a move by China “would be an enormous step forward in controlling the poaching” of African elephants for their tusks, said Andrew Wetzler, wildlife program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The signal came during the ceremonial crushing of 1.5 tons of illegal ivory tusks and carvings, witnessed by foreign reporters and diplomats, The Guardian reported.

Zhao Shucong, head of the state agency in charge of wildlife trade, told guests at the event that China “will strictly control ivory processing and trade until the commercial processing and sale of ivory and its products are eventually halted.”

The statement also appeared in an official government handout/transcript of Zhao’s remarks obtained by TakePart from the World Wildlife Fund.

Suggesting a shutdown of approved domestic ivory sales is a first for China, but there are few details so far on how or when the policy will go into effect. In February, China announced a 12-month moratorium on ivory imports.

RELATED: World’s Biggest Ivory Market Throws Elephants a Bone

Far from taking pressure off wild elephant populations, China’s state-approved ivory market “actually drove up demand to [a] point that it couldn’t be satisfied by the legal supply. That’s what has driven the poaching crisis in Africa,” said Wetzler.

“It’s well established that adding lanes to highways doesn’t decrease congestion; it just adds more drivers. That’s similar to what’s going on with wildlife trade,” he said. Wetzler also contended that China’s legal supply of ivory actually “camouflages the illegal flow of ivory.”

The United States has a similar problem, according to wildlife activists. Although the federal government has banned import and sale of raw ivory or ivory products imported after 1990, the U.S. is by some accounts the world’s second-largest market for ivory, and it is very difficult to tell legal from illegal products.

So, Why Should You Care? Slaughter of African elephants has surged in the past five years to a level that threatens to make the animals extinct in the wild. One hundred thousand animals were killed for their tusks between 2010 and 2012 alone. This is both a moral and an ecological crisis: Elephants are “ecosystem engineers,” providing the forest and grassland habitats they occupy with services such as scattering seeds in their fertilizer-rich manure and providing food for predators.

The NRDC is seeking more information on “what period of time [the ban] will be phased in, what the intermediate steps are,” Wetzler said. Still, “China ought to be applauded for not only destroying the ivory but making a very important policy announcement.”

Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation at WWF, also praised China’s apparent intention to ban commercial ivory sales, saying in a statement, “China should make good on its intentions to close its domestic ivory market by setting in place a firm plan and timeline, one that does not spur an even greater rush to launder ivory through the legal system before it closes.”

WWF, NRDC, and other wildlife groups are also lobbying the Obama administration to clamp down on the U.S. domestic ivory trade, which they say is helping to fuel the slaughter of nearly 100 elephants a day for their tusks. The U.S. is considering federal endangered species protections for African elephants, which would effectively ban all trade in products made from elephant parts.

“These and other major ivory-consuming countries hold the key to saving Africa’s elephants,” Hemley said, and their failure to act will mean “an unthinkable ending for one of the planet’s most iconic species.”