Last week was a big one for African elephants. China, the world’s largest market for illegal ivory, announced that it would phase-out its legal, domestic ivory market. With elephants under dire threat from poaching, the news could not be more welcome to conservationists.
“Under the legal framework of CITES and domestic laws and regulations, we will strictly control ivory processing and trade until commercial processing and the sale of ivory and its products are eventually halted,” said Zhao Shucong, head of China’s State Forestry Administration, referencing the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Flora and Fauna. The announcement came at a public event in Beijing, where officials destroyed 662 kilograms of confiscated ivory, including elephant tusks and ivory carvings.
So far, no additional details have been announced about the phase-out.
“We will be eagerly waiting for [details and a timeline], because of course the details are very important,” said Andrew Wetzler, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s land and wildlife program, speaking by phone. “But it is a very encouraging step.”
African elephant numbers have plummeted in the past century, from an estimated 10 million in 1913, to roughly 1.3 million in 1979, to just around 500,000 today. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, poachers killed 100,000 African elephants. Conservationists warn that if poaching isn’t controlled, African elephants could soon disappear entirely. (Read more about the poaching crisis and organized crime here.)
Poaching has been driven by the high demand — and the corresponding high prices — of ivory, particularly in China. In an increasingly affluent China, this demand only seems to be growing. In fact, a National Geographic survey found that 84 percent of the Chinese middle class intend to buy ivory products in the future. Conservationists say that China’s flourishing legal ivory market provides a front for illegal black-market ivory, feeding the poaching crisis. As a result, China is seen as an essential participant in any successful effort to curb global ivory demand and tackle elephant poaching.
Friday’s announcement was the first time China has committed to closing its legal ivory market. It comes on the heels of a one-year moratorium on the import of ivory carvings, announced by Chinese officials in last February. Last weeks ivory crushing event was the second one in China, following a larger event in 2014, where the government crushed 6.1 tons of ivory.
“China’s been increasingly stepping into a leadership role internationally when it comes to wildlife trade,” said Wetzler. “It’s a good indication of how seriously it is taking the problem of elephant poaching in Africa. The announcement made earlier this year about the moratorium on imports of carved ivory, combined with the announcement now to phase-out over time the domestic, commercial market in ivory … could be the single greatest step for ending the elephant poaching crisis that the international community has yet seen.”
Christián Samper, president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society, agreed. “It would be hard to overstate how significant this announcement may turn out to be,” he said in a statement. “Its potential impact could be critical to the fate of Africa’s declining elephant populations, which have been targeted by ruthless criminal syndicates across sub-Saharan Africa to supply the international demand for ivory.”
Conservation groups note, however, that China’s announcement must be accompanied by concrete actions. According to TRAFFIC, a non-governmental organization that works globally on the trade in animals and plants, that means compliance with the CITES ban on the international ivory trade, and improved efforts to educate and inform the public. And in a statement about the announcement, WCS’s Samper called on the Chinese government to “announce effective trafficking deterrents, such as a commitment to successful prosecution of criminals, significant fines, long jail sentences, and asset seizures.”
The eventual closure of China’s domestic ivory market was announced as part of a ten-point plan outlined at the ivory crushing event. As The Guardian reported, Zhao also committed China to a renewed public awareness campaigns, stricter policing of the illegal wildlife trade both on the ground and online, and improved international cooperation.
As conservation groups await more details on the ban, they are hopeful that this development could turn out to be a defining moment for African elephants. “China is the largest ivory market in the world,” said Wetzler. “So the steps it takes to further regulate its own ivory market are going to really set the stage for other major ivory market nations to follow.”