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Hardened poachers have killed so many elephants that they can often imitate the screams the animals make when speared. They can tell you how other elephants howl in distress when they see one of their own felled.
Behind the savagery visited on these magnificent, highly sensitive and intelligent creatures lies greed and a desire for shiny objects?sometimes rooted in trend, sometimes tradition.
Over the past decade, poachers have slaughtered more than 100,000 African elephants for their ivory?more than one quarter of the population. Many of the tusks now end up in China and other parts of Asia, where they are turned into trinkets and marketed as status symbols.
Elephants are not the only victims. The illegal trade has generated enormous profits that feed corruption and finance criminal cartels, stoking instability around the world.
That is why China’s decision to ban the sale of ivory nationally, to come in line with the international ban that has been in place since 1989, deserves huge praise. The government ban will shut down the legal trade in ivory, establishing a new narrative for China’s worldview: as a leader for environmental action.
Surveys in China’s three largest cities have found that 95 percent of the people support the ban because they believe it would protect African elephants.
That the ban has such widespread support is a major victory. The fight to end the slaughter, however, is far from over. While the ban sends a strong message that ivory products are now taboo, the legal trade is only a very small part of the problem.
The bigger battle lies in tackling the far larger illegal trade. Reducing demand will be a key weapon in this fight but changing minds takes years of hard work?time that the world’s dwindling population of elephants may not have.
China’s influence in Africa is growing, and with the Belt and Road Initiative, it is certain to grow further still. More than 1 million Chinese expatriates live in Africa.
Better intelligence sharing with African countries could seriously disrupt the smuggling rackets and break the cartels. China could also strengthen anti-poaching teams?the embattled first line of defence against poachers?and support institutions that tackle corruption, including police and customs officials at African ports.
Chinese businesses can get involved. On August 7 I was in South Africa for the African Ranger Awards Ceremony, where Jack Ma, co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, pledged his support for wildlife conservation.
Such steps could well see China go down in history as the savior of African elephants and other precious species?something that would be an incredible legacy.
At home, China has taken a series of giant strides toward addressing some of the country’s toughest environmental challenges. It has installed the largest air-quality monitoring system in the world to combat the toxic smog that shrouds its cities.
These advances are part of China’s ambitious vision to build what it calls an “ecological civilization”?an ambition that harkens back to its ancient philosophy of harmony with nature.
By sharing its only phenomenal development journey, China can help Africa leapfrog the rest of the world. That means helping African countries steer a more considered course to industrialization.
Early human history often follows a sad pattern. Humans arrive in new lands and learn how to hunt the local wildlife for food. Large, plodding megafauna?such as North America’s mastodons and giant beavers, and Australia’s two-ton wombats and marsupial lions?tend to disappear first.
Whether history repeats itself and humans wipe out yet another of the world’s big beasts will depend greatly on how well ecological civilization is married to its development.
The author is executive director of the UN Environment Programme. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.