If elephants could trumpet for joy, there would have been a resounding crescendo on Dec. 30 when China announced that it will close its domestic commercial elephant ivory market this year.
In 2015, Presidents Xi Jinping and Obama stood together and announced their intention to close their respective ivory markets. The United States implemented a near total ban last June. Now China has set out its timeline, committing to closure of its market by the end of 2017.
The Chinese ban is sweeping. International commercial trade between countries is already prohibited, and now China’s decision to cease domestic commercial ivory sales adds much needed teeth to that ban. Meanwhile, ivory carving groups will be encouraged to change their business, while ivory carving masters will be encouraged to restore cultural relics. Additionally, law enforcement efforts to stop the illegal trade will be enhanced along with public education on the ecological damage of purchasing ivory.
Conservationists have called the Chinese ban a game changer, which it is, with ivory traffickers now staring at a giant “out of business” sign by their largest customer.
This action by China came as momentum has been building to close domestic ivory markets around the globe. Last September, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the global authority on conserving species, voted overwhelmingly to urge all governments to close their domestic ivory markets. Later, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) adopted a resolution recommending that all countries close their domestic ivory markets.
The seeds of this global movement began 28 years ago when, as secretary of State under President George H.W. Bush, I was proud to have been part of American leadership in an effort to ban the international ivory trade through CITES. After the ban went into effect, elephant numbers, which had been declining steadily due to poaching, began to stabilize.
Over time, however, the ban was weakened and undermined through approval of one-off sales of ivory stockpiles as well as the development of a thriving black market trade. Coupled with growing wealth in China and the increased demand for luxury goods such as ivory, traffickers and organized crime networks began wholesale slaughtering of elephants.
This industrial-scale killing, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, has resulted in as many as 35,000 elephants killed annually — or 96 a day. A recent census puts the number of African elephants at around 400,000, down from 1.2 million three decades ago. It is estimated that forest elephants, which are restricted to the Congo Basin in Central Africa, will need 100 years to recover from an onslaught of poaching that began in 2002.
China’s announcement recognizes that there should be no commercial ivory trade, and that corruption and organized crime are heavily involved. As China moves to implement its market closure, we need to ensure that all bans are policed effectively. Further, more resources are needed to stop the killings and put the traffickers out of business once and for all. At the same time, other countries with legal domestic ivory markets should follow China’s lead and close their markets, particularly Japan and other Asian countries where demand for ivory is high.
It would be a crime if future generations had to live in a world without elephants.
I applaud China and encourage it to strongly enforce its ban. And I urge the Trump administration to restore the bipartisan efforts and American leadership that will help elephant populations begin the long road to recovery.
James A. Baker III was the 61st U.S. secretary of State.