China’s ban on ivory trade a game-changer

The New Year started on a mixed note with a number of lives lost in Iraq, Turkey and Somalia.

But to conservationists, 2017 began in an excellent way: China pledged to stop the ivory trade, a move that is widely seen as a possible game-changer in the global fight against the poaching of elephants.

The promise by China – which has been the world’s largest market for both legal and illegal ivory trading – to close its legal ivory carving factories came about one and half years after it promised to combat the rising poaching cases.

The ban is a strong follow-up to the bilateral announcement with the US in July, when China pledged to set a timeline for the phase out of its market by the end of 2016.

In what media have referred to as the “monumental win for elephants,” the ban reinforced President Xi Jinping’s perennial campaign against corrupt officials, who have been using ivory products as bribes.

It in no doubt injected some hope in the much-looked-after belief that China is actually turning out to be one of Africa’s best friends as the Asian nation looks to expand its influence on the continent.

For time immemorial, China resisted the strong global call for its leaders to monitor ivory sales. The sound of the alarm has been so high in the last decade during which it is estimated that more than 100,000 elephants were killed. The driver behind this, according to environmentalists, has been China’s ivory carving, considered a fine art and cultural tradition.

With increased pressure from international NGOs, media and activists, and the need for China to better its global image, attitudes among its top leaders have shifted over the last several years.

In 2014, for instance, the Chinese ambassador to Tanzania rebuked Chinese citizens in the country for being arrested on suspicion of smuggling.

In Africa, particularly in Kenya and South Africa where poaching had been rampant, closing down the domestic ivory market in China will have a dramatic impact. Elephants will no longer be at the brink of extinction. Surely, tourism will get a new lease on life.

Despite the bright outlook, there are concerns that Europe’s fast expanding global ivory exports may undermine the overwhelming pressure for China to implement the ban in a robust way.

There are fears that a lack of momentum from Europe, and in particular the United Kingdom, could provide them with an argument as to why they don’t need to fully implement their proposed ban.

Europe is the biggest legal exporter of ivory on earth. The number of tusks sold from member states jumped significantly in recent years. Traffic analysis of the international trade database showed that the EU exported more than 300 raw tusks in 2013 and 2014. The EU has only ever sent more than 100 tusks offshore once in the past decade.

Indeed, a recent petition on the UK government website calling for the closure of the domestic ivory market in the UK got nearly 200,000 signatures, triggering a parliamentary debate.

As we ponder on the ban, we must not all be in celebrations. The world needs to wait and see how effectively China will carry out the ivory ban. This is due to the fact that at times enforcement is a major challenge in China’s legal system. Naturally, there will be a bit of resistance, given the strong influence of the ivory industry on the country. This calls for a follow through with a holistic plan of action.

More importantly, there is a need for the world to come together and ensure that the ban is enforced across the world. It’s encouraging that the Obama administration already has shut down almost all trade in ivory in the US and several states have their own bans.

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