By Patrick Bergin
On February 26, China’s State Forestry Administration announced on its website it was imposing a one-year ban on all imports of African ivory carvings. According to an unnamed forestry official, the suspension of ivory imports would allow authorities to evaluate the ban’s effectiveness in stemming elephant poaching in Africa. Because the ban was limited in scope, too brief in its temporal application, and fell far short of banning all domestic ivory trade in China, it was largely viewed by the conservation community as a symbolic plaster applied to a gushing wound.
Even if the ivory ban was largely symbolic, symbolism has its place too. It can prove an effective tool by way of drawing attention to a problem in desperate need of a solution. Consider the destruction of ivory stockpiles, which have taken place from Denver, Colorado in the United States to the city of Dongguan in China’s Guangdong Province. These acts were largely symbolic if you consider that destroying stockpiles won’t better equip and train Africa’s rangers nor arrest, prosecute, convict and punish the kingpins and middlemen behind the illicit ivory trade. But, like the first ever ivory burn in Kenya in 1989, these public acts draw the crisis out of the shadows and train national and international attention on the issue. So it is with China’s ivory import ban. Its existence is an acknowledgement by the Chinese government that ivory consumption and elephant poaching are linked. Whether intentional or not, that very important message is now being conveyed to the larger Chinese public. Even though the ban will only impact a handful of travelers seeking to import their ivory purchases from abroad, these travelers comprise an important segment of society that need to hear that message.
The ban, however, is not the only encouraging step the Chinese government has made in recent years. Prime Minister Li Keqiang pledged US$10 million to assist African nations with wildlife protection. In 2013, the Chinese government implemented a SMS text alert system for all Chinese citizens traveling to Kenya, reminding them through their mobile phones when they landed in the country not to buy ivory, rhino horn or other wildlife products during their stay. Shortly after the city of Dongguan burned its ivory, Hong Kong authorities embarked on a systematic two-year scheme to destroy their entire ivory stockpile. Each of these actions on their own will not be enough to save Africa’s elephants but their cumulative impact helps to shift the attention of 1.3 billion people onto the issue.
There are signs that government action together with extensive public awareness campaigns are starting to take root in the psyche of China’s consumers. A recent survey conducted by African Wildlife Foundation, WildAid and Save the Elephants noted a significant increase in awareness among residents of three of China’s largest cities about the illegal ivory trade and its link to elephant poaching. Between the years 2012 and 2014, there was a 51.5 percent increase in those who believed elephant poaching was a problem, with 95 percent of respondents in favor of a complete ban on ivory trade in the country. The hope is that this positive momentum will continue.
We commend the Chinese government on the steps it has taken thus far to curb ivory trafficking and assist African nations in the protection of their elephants. We urge the government, however, to expand the new ivory import ban to cover all domestic ivory trade and to add another zero to the end of, at the very least, a 10-year ban. We further urge the Chinese government and all governments with ivory stockpiles to destroy them. Without a legal trade, there will be nothing for the illegal trade to hide behind, and, given enough time, it should be possible to rout out the country’s illegal ivory operators and stabilize Africa’s elephant population.
Without China’s help, Africa’s elephants face an uncertain future. With China’s help, they have a future.
Dr. Patrick Bergin is the CEO of the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and a member of the U.S. Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking. AWF and the Aspen Institute are currently hosting a series of high-level dialogues in China and Africa on wildlife crime and natural resource management.