China announced on Friday that it was banning all commerce in ivory by the end of 2017, a move that would shut down the world’s largest ivory market and could deal a critical blow to the practice of elephant poaching in Africa.
The decision by China follows years of growing international and domestic pressure and gives wildlife protection advocates hope that the threatened extinction of certain elephant populations in Africa can be averted.
“China’s announcement is a game changer for elephant conservation,” Carter Roberts, the president and chief executive of the World Wildlife Fund, said in written statement. “With the United States also ending its domestic ivory trade earlier this year, two of the largest ivory markets have taken action that will reverberate around the world.”
Tens of thousands of elephants have been illegally killed in recent years, mostly to meet the Chinese demand for ivory. Some Chinese investors call ivory “white gold,” while carvers and collectors call it the “organic gemstone.”
Elly Pepper, a wildlife advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York, wrote that China’s announcement “may be the biggest sign of hope for elephants since the current poaching crisis began.”
Wildlife advocates have said for years that the most important step in putting poachers out of business would be ending the ivory trade in China.
The advocates have promoted long-running public campaigns to shame China and raise questions about its global responsibilities, at a time when China has been assuming a higher profile on the world stage. The success of the new policy depends on how strictly it is enforced.
In the announcement, the State Council, China’s cabinet, said the shutdown of the market would occur in phases throughout 2017. In the first step, a designated group of legal ivory processing factories and businesses will be forced to close by March 31. The Ministry of Culture will help in the transition of legal ivory into use in museums and other cultural sites, as well has help workers in the ivory industry, including master carvers, find related jobs.
China’s move is also a result of negotiations at senior levels between Washington and Beijing. In 2015, when President Xi Jinping of China made a state visit to Washington, he and President Obama agreed that the two nations would impose “nearly complete bans on ivory import and export,” as well as “take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.” Those goals were reiterated in Beijing this past June during a summit meeting between the United States and China that addressed economic and strategic issues.
A statement from that meeting noted that China enacted a ban on ivory imports and related products in March 2016 and that it would publish by the end of 2016 a timetable for ending its domestic commercial trade.
“Demand for elephant ivory has skyrocketed in recent years, spurring poaching levels that are driving elephants towards extinction,” Ms. Pepper wrote Friday. “And ending the legal ivory trade in China — the world’s largest consumer of elephant ivory — is critical to saving the species.”
Ms. Pepper called on the other nations, including Britain, to follow China’s lead, and said the United States, which has made significant progress on the issue, could do more to bolster enforcement.
The question of enforcement is one that will apply to China, too, as it enacts the ban, and government actions will be closely watched by advocates. Chinese officials often announce ambitious policies but sometimes fall short on carrying them out. This has happened in the realm of environmental protection, one of the most critical issues with which the Chinese government is grappling.
Pressure on the Chinese government over the ivory trade has come not just from international organizations. One of the most recognizable Chinese public figures, Yao Ming, the 7-foot-6 former Houston Rockets center, has taken up wildlife conservation as his main cause and in particular has denounced the domestic trade in elephant ivory, rhino horns and shark fins. Years ago, he lent his name to large billboards appearing in Chinese cities that showed horrific piles of tusks. He has visited Kenya and helped publish a book on the issue and appeared in a 2014 documentary, “The End of the Wild.”
Grace Ge Gabriel, the Asia director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, wrote on Friday that she was “overwhelmed with joy” at China’s announcement. She said the legal market in China had long provided cover for the illegal market, and it had also sent “a confusing message to consumers that it is O.K. to buy ivory.”
But the new policy, she said, “demonstrates the Chinese government’s determination to save elephants.”
Once the Chinese market shuts down, the main international market for ivory may shift to Southeast Asia, but the demand in that region is not expected to be nearly as large as the one that exists in China, which, with 1.4 billion people, is the world’s most populous nation.
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