U.S. and China Take Giant Step Toward Elephant Conservation

Wildlife experts called the countries’ statement a ‘watershed moment.’
Workers put ivory items on a sliding belt to be destroyed in Beijing on May 29. (Photo: Fred Dufour/AFP via Getty Images)
Sep 26, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

President Xi Jinping’s first visit to the United States was a busy one: China’s head of state traveled across the country to speak at state dinners, discuss cyber spying, and address the United Nations. While First Lady Peng Liyuan helped First Lady Michelle Obama name the National Zoo’s month-old panda cub, Xi and President Barack Obama also dealt with some pressing wildlife matters.

The two presidents committed to end the sale of commercial ivory in their respective countries on Friday. According to a statement released by the White House, the two countries vowed to “enact nearly complete bans on ivory imports and exports, including significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies, and to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.”

It’s the first time the U.S. and China have come together in a joint statement to protect wildlife, according to the Humane Society of America, which also called the commitment a “watershed moment.”

China is the world’s largest market for ivory, with some estimates putting the U.S. in second place. At an ivory-crushing event in Beijing in May, Chinese officials said the nation would begin to control and eventually shut down its domestic ivory trade. But with few details or a timeline, the announcement was met with skepticism by animal activists. This time—even thought the details are still lacking—wildlife advocates are more optimistic.

“We are confident that the United States will finalize pending regulations codifying an ivory ban nationally here in the U.S., and the Chinese government likewise will move expeditiously from this significant announcement to implementation,” Cristián Samper, CEO and president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, wrote in an email to TakePart.

The U.S. already has a nearly complete ban on ivory sales, with Obama announcing additional regulations to halt interstate sales in June. But because ivory still enters the U.S. illegally, China and the U.S. also committed to “enhancing international law enforcement.”

The high demand for ivory has led to a surge in poaching across Africa. Between 2010 and 2012, 100,000 African elephants were illegally killed for their tusks. As a result, elephants could become extinct within the next 10 years. But eliminating the two top markets driving hunters to poach the majestic animals could have a great impact on preserving the species.

“Two of the most powerful heads of state want an end to all ivory trade. That’s only good news for elephants, and we call upon all governments to follow suit,” Samper wrote. “Once both nations definitively take this action, ivory trafficking will begin to fall and the number of elephants could rise again.”