China has pledged to crack down on its ivory trade, a landmark decision that conservationists hope deter poaching of African elephants.
China announced it will phase out the domestic manufacturing and selling of ivory products, a step forward in a long-time effort by activists and officials to get China to take a hardline stance on elephant poaching. The announcement, made by Zhao Shucong, head of China’s State Forestry Administration was accompanied by the symbolic destruction of over 1,400 pounds of ivory.
China, where some citizens consider ivory to have medicinal properties, is considered to drive much of the demand for illicit ivory products. International officials and high-profile celebrities have made statements asking China to take action on the ivory trade, and a recent survey revealed 95 percent of Chinese supported a total ban on ivory sales.
Conservation groups immediately applauded China’s pledge to halt the domestic ivory trade, but many remained skeptical if the government would adequately enforce the ban. China has not set a timescale for the phase-out, with Zhao only saying China would “strictly control ivory processing and trade until the commercial processing and sale of ivory and its products are eventually halted.”
Zhao said the phase-out was part of a 10-point plan that includes closer monitoring of the illegal wildlife trade, including in online markets. The government would also support campaigns designed to discourage demand for ivory and work more closely with other countries to stop poaching and trafficking. In two months, China is scheduled to undergo bilateral trade talks with the U.S., with the topic of combating international wildlife crime expected to be on the agenda.
There has been an international ban on ivory trade since 1989, but China has been accused of allowing the illegal wildlife product to propagate within its borders. China will seize illegal ivory stockpiles, but then release them to carving factories to be dispersed and sold legally. Conservationists say this only increases the demand for ivory on the black market.
The need to halt the ivory trade becomes more urgent by the year as populations of African elephants in several countries continue to plummet. Mozambique recently announced it has lost half of its population of elephants, or over 10,000 animals, within just five years. It’s estimated that every year, more than 22,000 elephants are killed for their tusks. As of 2012, there were 400,000 African elephants, down from 1.2 million in 1989.
As the ivory trade continues to be driven largely by organized criminal gangs and terrorist organizations, a law alone is unlikely to deter perpetrators without adequate follow-through. But conservationists remain hopeful that by giving wildlife criminals once less place to peddle their wares, China, long a part of the poaching problem, is finally committed to being part of the solution.