China Brings an End to Its Ivory Trade

The country is believed to have been one of the world’s largest markets for ivory products

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Gary M. Stolz/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Around one year ago, China announced that it would bring an end to its ivory trade by the end of 2017. And the country has stayed true to its promise. As Colin Dwyer reports for NPR, China’s ban on the sale and processing of ivory went into effect on December 31, marking an important step forward in the fight to combat the poaching of African elephants.

In 2015, China joined the United States in vowing to implement a “nearly complete” ban on the import and export of ivory. The two countries are believed to have been the world’s largest markets for ivory products. The U.S. ban went into effect in June 2016, and China completed its ban last week.

The Chinese government were to shut down 105 ivory-carving workshops and retail agencies before New Year’s, according to the Xinhua news agency. Another 67 outlets were closed back in March.

“Decades from now, we may point back to this as one of the most important days in the history of elephant conservation,” Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation at the World Wildlife Fund, said in a statement after China officially closed its ivory markets. “China has followed through on a great promise it made to the world, offering hope for the future of elephants.”

The international ivory trade has been banned since 1989, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). But China continued to allow domestic sales of ivory products that were crafted before 1975, according to Reuters. The bulk of the country’s ivory supply came from a single ivory sale permitted by CITES in 2008, reports Rachael Bale of National Geographic. But China’s legal trade has provided cover for the smuggling of illegal ivory, an industry that fuels the slaughter of around 100 African elephants every day.

As Fred Kumah, WWF Director for Africa, writes in a post on Medium, the ban "sets the stage for the critical action needed to enforce it and stamp out the parallel illegal ivory trade that has co-existed for many years with the legal trade.” But he cautions that the “majority” of Chinese citizens are still unaware of the ban.

“This means for the ban to truly have an effect, it will be critical in the coming months to publicize it and harness that support,” Kumah writes.

In the hopes of bolstering awareness, China has launched a major campaign complete with posters, videos and articles encouraging people to say “no to ivory,” according to Bale of National Geographic. In a blog posted to the Chinese social media site Weibo, the country’s forestry ministry recently explained to readers that "if a merchant tells you 'this is a state-approved ivory dealer'... he is duping you and knowingly violating the law," reports the BBC.

Lack of public awareness is not the only obstacle to China’s efforts to clamp down on elephant poaching, however. Hong Kong, an autonomous territory in southeastern China, is not covered by the newly implemented ban—and according to Reuters, Hong Kong is a major center of ivory consumption, with 90 percent of its customers coming from mainland China.

Fortunately, Hong Kong has laid out a plan to eliminate its ivory trade over the course of five years. The city’s legislature is expected to put the ban to a final vote in 2018.

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