China’s ivory trade: The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?

The announcement by the State Forestry Administration of China (29th May 2015) that  “We will strictly control ivory processing and trade until the commercial processing and sale of ivory and its products are eventually halted” has captured international attention and raised public expectations that a major policy shift may be underway.

This potentially dramatic news follows hard on the heels of latest data coming out of various parts of Africa indicating that elephant poaching continues to be prosecuted at crisis levels.  Mozambique has now declared that its elephant population has fallen by 50% (20,000 to 10,000) in the last five years.  Meanwhile, Tanzania has revealed that the Rungwa-Ruaha ecosystem has seen elephant numbers fall from 20,000 in 2013 to just over 8,000 in 2014.  Some say that Tanzania may be losing  1,000 elephants a month!  Clearly the need for China to move from a statement of intent to confirmed and enforced action on the ground has never been greater.

What would the impact be were  China to close its currently legal domestic ivory markets?  Firstly, it would remove any doubt in the minds of enforcement entities such as Customs and Border Agencies that anyone selling ivory would be selling illegal ivory.   Secondly, it would remove the opportunity for poached ivory to be laundered into the legal, parallel market.

It may well have the same impact as when the international ivory trade ban came into force in January 1990, driving down prices, increasing risk of detection, and consequently dramatically decreasing the level of poaching.  It would also mean that the world, as in 1989, would be broadly unified on the ivory issue sending a clear, unequivocal message to criminal syndicates that, in spite of wildlife crime being a high-yield/low risk operation, that the game was up.

So, whether this is the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning, it is essential that China makes the ultimate move and calls time on the ivory trade.

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