Ivory Update: China Crushes 6.1 Tonnes

More than 6 tonnes of tusks and ivory ornaments are crushed in a public display in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, China.

More than 6 tonnes of tusks and ivory ornaments are crushed in a public display in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, China. (c. CITES)

Following her report on the CITES convention in Bangkok back in March 2013, Jessica Crisp gives us an update on the latest international efforts to derail the illegal ivory trade. 

In China, ivory is considered more precious than gold. It is a symbol of status, a physical sign of wealth and power. The carving of ivory is deemed to be a trade worthy of protection. In Beijing you’ll find the largest ivory processing facility in the world.

So it came as something of a shock when China recently destroyed more than six tonnes of illegally acquired tusks and ivory ornaments. It followed in the example of the USA and the Philippines, both of which had earlier destroyed their entire national stocks (five and six tonnes respectively).

So is China finally beginning to bow to the pressure of the international community?

Back in March 2013, the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) convened in Bangkok for its bi-annual conference on the protection of wildlife. It concluded that the eight countries most heavily involved in the ivory trade, including China, must have a clear set of targets to combat the issue.

China, widely looked upon as the most prolific consumer of ivory, and often criticized for fostering the illegal trade by cultivating demand, was expected to take the lead.

Now it appears it has. Accompanying this public display of ivory crushing was the statement given by the Chinese State Forestry Administration to the United Nations. It declared that the destruction was conducted “for the purpose of raising public awareness, and demonstrating China’s resolve to combat wildlife trafficking”.

But while the government of China is beginning to assume some form of responsibility and control, Chinese involvement in the harvesting and trafficking of ivory shows no signs of abating.

Recent reports have highlighted the prevalence of illegal trading in the town of Mong La, Myanmar – right on the border with China. An undercover team of conservationists, including members of the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, found more than 3,300 pieces of ivory.

“We found a shocking amount of ivory – a lot more than we’ve seen in the past there”, said Dr. Chris Shepherd, TRAFFIC’s Regional Director in Southeast Asia. “We didn’t expect to find this much.”

“We’ve got to kill the market, kill the demand”, he added. “That’s an incredibly important step. The other, though, is enforcement and that’s enforcement within China, enforcement within Myanmar, and cooperation between the two countries.”

There are also new concerns at the source of the trade. In recent months, allegations have been made that Chinese-owned construction camps in the Republic of Congo are acting as a kind of covert conduit for ivory going back to Asia. Dotting the main road running along the edge of the Odzala-Kokoua National Park, these camps are now being closely monitored by the head of the park’s anti-poaching unit Mathieu Eckel. So far, two Chinese nationals have been detained after being caught with elephant tusks.

Eckel’s biggest worry is that the camps are located near villages with a history of poaching. He believes the Chinese managers are partly responsible for encouraging the slaughter: “They ask everybody to get them ivory. So you can imagine a villager and once a day a Chinese asks him – do you have ivory? What will he do, this man? Of course he will become a poacher.”

With an estimated 22,000 elephants killed in 2013 alone, conservationists are becoming increasingly concerned for Africa’s 500,000-strong population. In the space of just 13 years, elephant deaths as a result of poaching have gone up 20 per cent. Recent analysis has shown that if these rates continued, Africa would lose one fifth of its elephants in the next ten years. Weak governance, poverty and increasing demand are cited as the chief threats to elephant populations across the continent.

While China may not be able to tackle issues in Africa, it is able to take steps to curb demand and change attitudes within its own borders, and perhaps throughout Asia. The destruction of 6.1 tonnes of ivory will not immediately resolve the issue, but it suggests that officials may be starting to think differently. China plays a crucial part in this story and it has the power to initiate change – this latest move is perhaps a sign that the country is heading in the right direction.

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