The world’s largest wildlife conference, held over 10 days recently in Johannesburg, put protection of African elephants back in the spotlight.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species recommended tighter rules on trafficking of endangered species, including sharks, gray parrots and pangolins. Thirty nations called for all elephants to be placed on the list of most endangered animals, but lack of support from other nations scuppered a proposal to include them in the top-protection category, which would have protected the mammals from poaching and illegal trade.
“This is a tragedy for elephants,” said Kelvin Alie, wildlife program director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “At a time when we are seeing such a dramatic increase in the slaughter of elephants for ivory, now was the time for the global community to step up and say ‘no more’!” Indeed, Africa’s elephants are in deep survival crisis.
Their population is at a record low, with fewer than 500,000 elephants left in the wild. That compares with an estimated 1.2 million elephants in 1981, according to a report by World Wide Fund for Nature.
Approximately 20,000 elephants were killed for their tusks last year alone. In 2014, about 30,000 African elephants were poached.
Poaching for the ivory trade has wiped out nearly a third of African savannah elephants, according to Grace Gabriel, Asia regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
“The elephant is a slow growing, slow breeding species,” she said. “At the current poaching rate, elephant populations could well become extinct in 10 years in certain parts of Africa.”
China plays a pivotal role in the global debate. It has long been one of the world’s biggest markets for ivory trading, both legal and illegal.
Ivory is deemed here to be very precious and was a royal commodity in ancient times. The history of ivory carving, chopsticks and jewelry goes back more than 3,000 years. Ivory carving, which peaked in the mid-Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), was listed as a China intangible cultural heritage in 2006.
The products made by master carvers usually fetch extremely high prices, the World Wide Fund for Nature said.
“Increased demand for ivory causes price to escalate and incentivizes criminal syndicates to increase elephant poaching,” said Gabriel. “When ivory is so high-priced, some people appreciate it not for its artistic value but rather for its investment value.”
The largest numbers of legal outlets for ivory are antique and collectibles markets, followed by the jewelry sections of shopping malls, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature.
“China has a key role to play in saving African elephants,” Gabriel said. “Legal ivory markets in China created opportunities for criminals to whitewash ivory that is smuggled in from poached elephants, confusing consumers and creating enforcement challenges.”
Trade in illegal ivory has shifted and begun to flourish on harder-to-monitor social media platforms, the World Wide Fund for Nature said.
Between May and June this year, TRAFFIC conducted checks on 58 suspected users on a social media platform for ivory trading and found 673 advertisements related to illegal ivory.
In September last year, China and the United States committed themselves to enacting almost complete bans on the import and export of ivory, including significant restrictions on the use of ivory as hunting trophies, Xinhua reported.
The two sides, recognizing the importance and urgency of combating wildlife trafficking, committed to taking positive measures to address this global challenge, Xinhua reported.
Since January 2014, China has twice publicly destroyed confiscated ivory.
“China’s implementation of stricter domestic measures to reduce supply sends a strong message to consumers, helping reduce demand for elephant ivory and setting a great example for the world to save elephants,” said Gabriel.
At the end of 2011, based on a tip-off from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Chinese government halted an auction selling tiger bone wine, rhino horn and elephant ivory carvings.
It also issued an administrative order banning the auction of such wildlife parts and products.
The government’s order reduced ivory sales on the Chinese mainland auction markets by 90 percent in 2012, and the reduction correlated with a lower slaughter of elephants, the fund said.
But challenges remain. How can a complete ban on ivory trading be implemented in a market where ivory has for so long been a cherished cultural icon?
A survey conducted by research agency Rapid Asia concluded that the best way to stop ivory purchases is by “making ivory trade illegal in all circumstances.”
“Only by having clear and unequivocal laws banning the ivory trade, combined with vigorous enforcement and meaningful penalties for violators, will a stigma be attached to ivory trading and demand subsequently reduced,” said Gabriel.
Zhang Li, a professor of life sciences at Beijing Normal University and a specialist in wildlife protection, said there are many issues to tackle before a complete ban.
He and other experts are doing research for the Chinese government on the timing and forms of an ivory import and export ban.
“Popular opinion in China seems to support a total ban on ivory sales, but large stockpiles — Chinese firms are reckoned to be sitting on 40 tons of legal raw ivory and unfinished products since the 2009 deal — must be dealt with somehow,” he wrote in an article in Nature, published last November.
“Chinese law does not currently allow registered manufacturers and suppliers to be simply closed down,” he wrote.
“Instead, ivory must be de-commercialized.”
Zhang suggested the simplest way to do that is for the government to buy back all legally held commercial ivory in a compulsory-purchase program and then pass the stockpiles to museums.
“That would make enforcement simpler, cheaper and more effective,” he wrote. “Ivory sculptures could still be displayed in museums as national treasures and could be used in schools to educate children about Chinese heritage and also the need for conservation.”
However, he added, “It will not be easy to separate cultural value from a monetary value. But to save the elephant, we must try.”