Will China’s ivory-ban pledge have teeth?

Wildlife ex­perts see coun­try’s plan to end the legal trade as best step to re­duce poach­ing. But with­out a set time frame, no one wants to de­clare a victory.

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY SIMON DENYER simon.denyer@wash­post.com Xu Jing and Liu Liu con­trib­uted to this re­port.

bei­jing — China has pledged to end the pro­cess­ing and sale of ivory, a move that — if ful­filled — would be a ma­jor victory in the battle to end the slaugh­ter of tens of thou­sands of African ele­phants by poach­ers ev­ery year. But the coun­try has not said how quickly it will act, and a top Chi­nese of­fi­cial called on the United States in an in­ter­view this week to also tighten its rules on ivory trad­ing.

Wildlife ex­perts said China’s re­cent an­nounce­ment rep­re­sented a sea change in of­fi­cial at­ti­tudes and called the prospect of an end to the legal trade in ivory in this coun­try the great­est step that can be taken to re­duce poach­ing. But they added that much would de­pend on when China acts, and how firmly.

China’s legal trade in ivory prod­ucts — largely based on a stock­pile im­ported in 2009— pro­vides the cover for a vast il­le­gal trade that fu­els poach­ing in Africa and in­volves global crime syn­di­cates, ex­perts say.

In an in­ter­view, a top Chi­nese wildlife of­fi­cial said his coun­try was still de­cid­ing how far and how quickly it would act, but added that China could not be ex­pected to act alone. Meng Xian­lin, China’s top rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species (CITES) said that other coun­tries — in­clud­ing the United States — also need to toughen their reg­u­la­tions.

“Some peo­ple say, ‘China should take the lead­er­ship, you first, you stop ev­ery­thing and other coun­tries will fol­low,’ ” he said. “I un­der­stand, but I think we should ne­go­ti­ate with other coun­tries to push th­ese pro­ce­dures grad­u­ally.”

On May 29, China de­stroyed nearly 1,500 pounds of tusks and ivory carv­ings in a public cer­e­mony in Bei­jing, af­ter sim­i­lar events in south­ern China and Hong Kong last year.

In a speech, Zhao Shu­cong, min­is­ter in charge of the State Forestry Ad­min­is­tra­tion, sur­prised as­sem­bled diplo­mats and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists by an­nounc­ing that China would “strictly con­trol the ivory trade and pro­cess­ing, un­til even­tu­ally halt­ing com­mer­cial pro­cess­ing and the sale of ivory and its prod­ucts.”

The re­marks prompted in­tense dis­cus­sions within the wildlife con­ser­va­tion com­mu­nity, with en­thu­si­asm mixed with dis­be­lief. China had long ar­gued that ivory carv­ing was part of its an­cient cul­tural her­itage. Was it se­ri­ous about closing its net­work of carv­ing work­shops, ad­vo­cates won­dered, or would it call a halt only when its ex­ist­ing stock­pile was de­pleted?

Meng said there was a com­mit­ment at the high­est lev­els of the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment to build an “eco­log­i­cal civ­i­liza­tion,” cit­ing one of the many slo­gans of Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s gov­ern­ment. Now the prin­ci­ple has been es­tab­lished, he said, and it is just a mat­ter of push­ing the pro­ce­dure.

“We par­tic­i­pated in sev­eral rounds of dis­cus­sion with our min­is­ter,” he said, re­fer­ring to Zhao. “His at­ti­tude is very firm; his point is very clear. It is not sim­ply a sen­tence; China will re­ally put this into prac­tice.”

Wildlife groups have been cam­paign­ing for years to hear those words. A ban on the legal ivory trade in China would make it much eas­ier to stamp out the il­le­gal trade, they say.

“End­ing the legal sales of ivory is the great­est sin­gle step that can be taken to re­duce ele­phant poach­ing in Africa, and we hope it can hap­pen as soon as pos­si­ble,” said Peter Knights of Wild Aid, a San Fran­cisco-based group that en­cour­ages Chi­nese peo­ple not to con­sume en­dan­gered wildlife prod­ucts. “We ap­plaud the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment for its lead­er­ship.”

Cris­tian Sam­per, pres­i­dent of the Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety in New York, said Meng’s re­marks should be “broad­cast around the world and should put all poach­ers on no­tice that their bloody mar­ket is no longer vi­able.”

“There is clearly a se­nior level of com­mit­ment from the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment to stop the ivory in­dus­try in China,” he said. “Now, Chi­nese gov­ern­ment agen­cies re­spon­si­ble for reg­u­lat­ing and man­ag­ing the ivory is­sue will need to de­velop a plan and a timeline to im­ple­ment this de­ci­sion. And peo­ple from all na­tions need to stop buy­ing ivory.”

China im­ported 62 tons of ivory in 2008 at a time when ele­phant num­bers were rel­a­tively healthy and limited in­ter­na­tional trade was al­lowed. It has been re­leas­ing that stock­pile grad­u­ally to more than 30 li­censed work­shops to be carved into ivory prod­ucts but re­fuses to say how much of the stock­pile re­mains.

Mean­while, poor en­force­ment of the li­cens­ing sys­tem al­lows the wide­spread sale of prod­ucts made from poached ivory, fu­el­ing the slaugh­ter. The African ele­phant pop­u­la­tion has fallen from more than 1 mil­lion in 1989 to about half a mil­lion now, with more than 20,000 an­i­mals es­ti­mated to have been killed for their tusks in each of the past two years.

Although stricter en­force­ment has helped re­duce poach­ing and pop­u­la­tions are grow­ing in some na­tions, Tan­za­nia and Mozam­bique have each lost half or more of their ele­phants in the past five years. There have also been big de­clines in for­est ele­phant pop­u­la­tions in cen­tral Africa.

Meng said the gov­ern­ment is sell­ing five tons of ivory a year to carv­ing work­shops but would “grad­u­ally” re­duce that an­nual quota to zero. He said a to­tal ban on ivory pro­cess­ing and sales could come “very quickly” but then added: “One year, two years, three years, four years, 10 years. Is that quick or not quick com­pared to the his­tory of the world?”

There is a prece­dent: Rhi­noc­eros horn had been used in tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine, but its use was banned in China in 1993, and it is hard to find here now.

At­ti­tudes are also chang­ing, with de­mand for shark fin soup sharply lower here in re­cent years. Meng said his son, and the younger gen­er­a­tion in gen­eral, no­longer wants to eat en­dan­gered wildlife prod­ucts. Wild Aid says that 95 per­cent of peo­ple sur­veyed in China’s three largest cities now sup­port a ban on ivory trad­ing.

But Meng said China should not be the only coun­try to act.

The United States is the sec­ond­largest mar­ket glob­ally for il­le­gal wildlife prod­ucts af­ter China, and it still al­lows trade in ivory ac­quired be­fore a world­wide ban in 1989. Tro­phy hun­ters, Meng pointed out, are also al­lowed to im­port ivory into the United States for non-com­mer­cial use; Euro­peans still trade in ivory ac­quired in colo­nial times, while some African coun­tries en­cour­age tro­phy hunt­ing for in­come.

In 2014, Pres­i­dent Obama or­dered a tight­en­ing of the rules on ivory trad­ing, while New York and New Jer­sey have both passed laws out­law­ing it. But the ad­min­is­tra­tion has failed to reach its ul­ti­mate goal of ana­tional ban. The Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion’s sup­port for tro­phy hunt­ing and for trade in guns with ivory-in­laid stocks re­mains a bar­rier, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists say.

“China’s an­nounce­ment puts the ball back in our court,” Peter LaFon­taine, a cam­paigns of­fi­cer at the In­ter­na­tional Fund for An­i­mal Wel­fare in Wash­ing­ton, wrote in a blog post. “The U.S. must lead by ex­am­ple to show we will not be an ac­tive player in the dev­as­ta­tion and even­tual ex­tinc­tion of such a ma­jes­tic and in­tel­li­gent species.

“It’s up to us to change the laws — and ac­tu­ally en­force them — be­fore it’s too late.”

FRED DU­FOUR/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

Re­cently China pub­licly de­stroyed th­ese ivory carv­ings— nearly 1,500 pounds worth— as a ges­ture of its se­ri­ous­ness about end­ing trade.

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