Dead elephant in the room


Agence France-Presse

Date Published

When the Chinese president and African leaders met yesterday to bolster economic ties, the elephant in the room was the trade in ivory – and conservationists wanted the issue on the table.

China is the major consumer of illegal elephant ivory, and demand for tusks is threatening Africa’s elephant populations with extinction. Chinese President Xi Jinping and leaders from about 50 African countries opened two days of talks in Johannesburg yesterday at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation.

Discussions were centred on industrialisation and development and were expected to culminate in major deals on infrastructure and agriculture.

“You cannot discuss development without talking about the natural resources and primarily wildlife,” said Philip Muruthi of the African Wildlife Foundation, adding that China consumes three-quarters of the ivory poached in Africa.

“Africa and China hold the keys to the future of elephants,” he said. International wildlife conservation group WWF urged the meeting to “incorporate clear goals” in its final declaration, as well as an action plan to push for sustainable use and trade of natural resources.

Between 20 000 and 40 000 elephants are slaughtered in Africa each year, fuelled mainly by demand from Asia. “In the four years up to 2014, the wholesale price of raw ivory in China tripled – reaching a per kilo price of $2 100 (R30 000),” according to the conservation group Save the Elephants.

“Without China’s leadership in ending the demand for ivory, Africa’s elephants could disappear from the wild within a generation,” warned the group’s founder, Iain DouglasHamilton. China’s ballooning middle class has created a population of wealthy shoppers with a penchant for ivory trinkets, or “white gold”, as a sign of financial success.

“This hobby of ivory craving should be changed because it drives the African elephants to the brink of extinction,” said Fei Zhou, director of China’s branch of the global NGO Traffic. Chinese film star Wang Baoqiang and Tanzanian musician Alikiba are leading the push to have the Johannesburg summit incorporate wildlife conservation into their talks.

“Look at the efforts China has done to recover the giant pandas. The rules are very stringent,” said Muruthi. The Chinese government has supported efforts to protect elephants in Africa, having granting $10 million last year to fund vehicles for game rangers and other protection measures.

The country also imposes severe penalties on ivory traffickers, with an average sentence of 15 years in prison. The international trade in ivory has been banned since 1989, but China was authorised in 2008 to import 62 tons of ivory from Africa in an attempt to dry up the black market.

The legal ivory objects are supposed to have an authentication certificate, but “most vendors ignore the regulations”, says Zhou. In September, President Xi pledged “to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory”, a move described by conservationists as “historic”.

That pledge “needs to be implemented right now,” said Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

There are about 470 000 elephants left in Africa, compared to 20 million in the early 20th century.