Your move, China. That’s the message sent by the Obama administration on Thursday in announcing a near total ban on commercial sales of African elephant ivory, set to take effect in July.
The U.S. is the world’s second-largest market for trafficked ivory, with most sales occurring in New York, California, and Hawaii, according to one recent report.
Now conservationists hope the world’s biggest consumer of illegal ivory will respond in kind.
Last September, President Xi Jinping of China jointly promised with President Obama to end domestic ivory sales, aiming to curtail a slaughter that is wiping out, by some estimates, almost 100 wild elephants a day.
But the Chinese government has yet to follow through, said Leigh Henry, a policy adviser with the World Wildlife Fund.
“When, in 2013, the United States crushed six tons of seized ivory in Denver, afterwards China crushed 6.1 tons of ivory. So there is definitely this kind of tit for tat that we’ve seen in the past,” said Henry.
With the U.S. ban formalized, “what I hope China will do is give a greater level of detail and a timeline for their ban,” she said, noting that the U.S. agencies worked hard to be sure the rule would be finalized in time for an annual high-level diplomatic meeting between American and Chinese officials in Beijing next week. According to the State Department, the meeting’s agenda will include energy, environmental, and economic issues.
The Obama administration intends for the near ban to have a chilling effect on global demand for elephant ivory. “One way we will evaluate the effectiveness of this rule is by evaluating how much ivory continues to make its way into the U.S. market,” said Craig Hoover, who directs U.S. compliance with international conservation and wildlife trade agreements at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We’ll also measure our success in terms of what other countries do to further regulate their own domestic markets.”
The U.S. has joined with governments of African elephant range countries to press for a worldwide closure of domestic ivory markets, said Iris Ho, the wildlife program manager at Humane Society International, and that effort’s potential is likely to be tested at the upcoming meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, scheduled to take place in Johannesburg in September.
There are a few exemptions in the ivory ban—such as allowing interstate sales of antiquities over 100 years old, as well as some musical instruments and other items containing less than 200 grams of ivory. (The Fish and Wildlife Service has posted guidelines online.) States still have jurisdiction over sales that don’t cross state lines.
The ban should add clout to the U.S. position at CITES while also diminishing the allure of ivory at home, Ho said.
“It’s sending out the message that ivory is a taboo product,” she said. “Ivory represents elephant slaughter. The rule will help to stop perpetuating the notion that ivory is collectible.”