China is currently the world’s biggest consumer of elephant tusks, and growing demand among the country’s newly rich for illegal imports is fueling the poaching of elephants for their tusks in African countries, conservationists say.
“We are recommending to the [Chinese] government that they buy up all the remaining ivory within China’s borders,” Grace Ge Gabriel, regional director for China at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), told RFA in a recent interview.
“Then, they should shut down the entire [legal] ivory market,” she said. “That way, it will be very hard for the illegal market to continue existing.”
Beijing said in February it would ban the import of African ivory carvings for one year, after buying 62 tonnes of ivory from a number of African nation-states.
While the country signed a pact banning the global trade in ivory in 1981, it negotiated an exemption in 2008 to run a government-controlled market in “legal” ivory.
The government ivory is then sold in portions to licensed ivory-carving companies annually.
But according to Ge Gabriel and IFAW, this practice is confusing the issue with the Chinese public over the ethical aspects of the ivory trade, and making it easier for the illegal trade to continue.
“China is an accomplice right now in the slaughter of elephants, but the government could turn China into a champion and hero of elephant protection,” she said.
NGO crackdown looms
Ge Gabriel’s remarks came after a senior U.S. official warned that a proposed Chinese government crackdown on foreign non-government organizations (NGOs) could damage international cooperation on the ivory trade.
Sally Jewell, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, said Beijing hasn’t committed to a timeline to end ivory imports altogether, however.
She said Beijing and Washington have agreed work together to end the “massacre” of wildlife and reduce the flow of illegal wildlife trafficking, however.
Further bilateral talks may address the issue when Chinese President Xi Jinping meets President Barack Obama on a state visit to the U.S. in September, Jewell said.
According to the State Department, the U.S. and China are both among the largest markets for illegal wildlife products, which make some U.S.$10 billion a year for the criminal syndicates that trade in them.
However, Chinese officials have declined to comment following Jewell’s trip to Beijing earlier this month, during which she tried to impress on them the importance of facilitating the work of NGOs operating in China.
Ivory trade talks
The U.S. has already expressed concern over draft laws on the regulation of foreign NGOs currently under discussion by China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC).
Rights groups say that the law will severely hamper NGOs’ activities, as well as legitimizing police surveillance and introducing state control of their funding.
Such measures, as well as growing domestic security clampdowns, “appear to call into question its commitment to the path of opening to the world that has supported its transformation over the past three decades,” Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski told a news briefing last month.
Ge Gabriel gave a cautious welcome to Beijing’s involvement in ivory trade talks, however.
“I think it’s great that the Chinese government has shown it has this intention,” she said.
“U.S. officials and Prince Charles of Britain have held talks with the Chinese government on this, so now the issue of wild animal protection has gone straight to the heart of the central leadership,” she added.
“That is a good thing.”