It’s not often that China gets praised by international conservationists. But on May 29 that’s exactly what happened when Zhao Shucong, head of China’s State Forestry Administration announced his country’s intention to put an end to its ivory trade.
Speaking at a ceremony to crush 662 kilograms of illegally imported ivory in Beijing, Zhao said: “We will strictly control ivory processing and its trade until the commercial processing and sale of ivory and its products are eventually halted.”
Chinese demand for ivory is thought to be behind a dramatic increase in the number of African elephants killed in the last five years.
The Chinese authorities say that they have worked hard to stamp out the illegal ivory trade. But until now they have also argued that the country should be allowed to retain a small legal trade in elephant teeth and tusks in order to preserve the ancient art of ivory carving.
Critics, however, have said that the licenced market provides cover for a much greater illegal trade that accounts for around 70% of the world’s poached ivory.
“The decision [to end the legal ivory trade] will have a profound impact on wild elephant conservation and ivory trafficking,” Lo Sze Ping, chief executive of WWF China, said in press release.
Chinese leaders Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang started paying more attention to the ivory issue two years ago, on fears that animal poaching could harm Sino-African relations and lead to the extinction of wild elephants in Africa within a generation.
Li Keqiang made the issue one of his main talking points on his four-nation African tour last year. In Kenya he visited a site where a hoard of poached tusks was destroyed and in his speech to the African Union in Ethiopia he promised $100 million to combat the illegal trade in ivory.
Of course, the issue has the advantage of dovetailing neatly with the anti-luxury and anti-graft campaigns being fought back home.
As Zhou Fei, the head of the wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC, said after the May 29 announcement: “The decision to phase out China’s ivory market …[is a ] powerful indication of the government’s commitment to support international action against elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade.”
However, environmental groups also sounded a note of caution, saying China has yet to provide fuller details of the ban, including when it will introduce it.
The government’s use of the word “commercial” also worries some activists who say that ivory carving may continue as a non-profit artform that makes items for museums or state buildings.
Even so the debate on ivory is now well ahead of that on protecting rosewood, a product also highly-desired by wealthy Chinese – and also increasingly scarce.
Rosewood is smuggled into China along similar routes to ivory and it is often carved by the same communities of artisans. Most types of rosewood are protected to some degree by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species. But demand for the luxury commodity has led to deforestation in countries like Madagascar, Cambodia and Myanmar. Campaigns to protect it are yet to resonate with the Chinese public, however. Last week Hangzhou staged its annual rosewood expo and this week Beijing will do the same.
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