China’s one-year Ivory Ban Can Create Momentum for Change in Attitudes

Patrick Bergin says largely symbolic move helps to raise awareness

China’s State Forestry Administration has announced a one-year ban on all imports of African ivory carvings. According to an unnamed forestry official, the suspension will allow authorities to evaluate the ban’s effectiveness in stemming elephant poaching in Africa. Because the ban was limited in scope, too brief and falling far short of banning all domestic ivory trade in China, it was largely viewed by the conservation community as a symbolic plaster applied to a gushing wound.

Nevertheless, symbolism has its place, too. It can draw attention to a problem in desperate need of a solution.

Consider the destruction of ivory stockpiles, which have taken place from Denver, Colorado in the United States to the city of Dongguan in Guangdong. These acts were largely symbolic if you consider that destroying stockpiles won’t better equip and train Africa’s rangers or arrest, prosecute, convict and punish the kingpins and middlemen behind the illicit ivory trade. But, like the first ever ivory burn in Kenya in 1989, these public acts draw the crisis out of the shadows and train national and international attention on the issue.

So it is with China’s ivory import ban. Its existence is an acknowledgement by the Chinese government that ivory consumption and elephant poaching are linked. Whether intentional or not, that important message is being conveyed to the larger Chinese public. The handful of travellers seeking to import their ivory purchases need to hear that message.

The ban, however, is not the only encouraging step the Chinese government has made in recent years. Premier Li Keqiang pledged US$10 million to assist African nations with wildlife protection.

In 2013, the Chinese government implemented an SMS text alert system for all Chinese citizens travelling to Kenya, reminding them through their mobile phones when they landed in the country not to buy ivory, rhino horn or other wildlife products. Shortly after Dongguan burned its ivory, Hong Kong authorities embarked on a systematic two-year scheme to destroy their entire ivory stockpile. Each of these actions on their own will not be enough to save Africa’s elephants but their cumulative impact helps to shift the attention of 1.3 billion people onto the issue.

There are signs that government action, together with extensive public awareness campaigns, are starting to take root in the psyche of China’s consumers. A recent survey conducted by the African Wildlife Foundation, WildAid and Save the Elephants noted a significant increase in awareness among residents of three of China’s largest cities about the illegal ivory trade and its link to elephant poaching. Between the years 2012 and 2014, there was a 51.5 per cent increase in those who believed elephant poaching was a problem, with 95 per cent of respondents in favour of a complete ban on ivory trade in the country.

The hope is that this positive momentum will continue.

We commend the Chinese government on the steps it has taken thus far to curb ivory trafficking and assist African nations in the protection of their elephants. We urge the government, however, to expand the new ivory import ban to cover all domestic ivory trade and to extend the ban. We further urge the Chinese government, and all governments with ivory stockpiles, to destroy them.

Without a legal trade, there will be nothing for the illegal trade to hide behind, and, given enough time, it should be possible to rout out the country’s illegal ivory operators and stabilise Africa’s elephant population.

Without China’s help, Africa’s elephants face an uncertain future. With China’s help, they have a future.

Dr Patrick Bergin is CEO of the African Wildlife Foundation.

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