By Kate Wong
In a development that has conservationists abuzz, Chinese officials crushed 6.1 tons of confiscated elephant ivory earlier today in a ceremony in Guangzhou. The move comes two months after the U.S. pulverized its six-ton stockpile of ivory contraband to signal that it will not tolerate the illegal wildlife trade, and one month ahead of a major international summit on wildlife trafficking to be held in London. But just how committed China is to combatting wildlife crime remains unclear.
Poaching of Africa’s savanna and forest elephants has reached levels that threaten the future of these species: tens of thousands of animals a year are being slaughtered for their tusks. The vast majority of the demand for the ivory comes from China, whose burgeoning middle class has a seemingly insatiable appetite for this traditional symbol of wealth.
In a letter sent to foreign embassies and other groups, China’s State Forestry Administration noted that wildlife trafficking has become a serious problem and explained that it would be destroying the ivory “for the purpose of raising public awareness, and demonstrating Chinese government’s resolve to combat wildlife trafficking,” according to a translation. The Wildlife Conservation Society observed in a news release that the ceremony follows on the heels of a story on the costs of the ivory trade that ran on the front page of an influential Chinese newspaper in November and went viral in China, reaching millions.
Conservationists applauded China’s symbolic gesture. “This is a courageous and critical first step by China to elevate the important issue of wildlife trafficking and elephant poaching among its citizens and around the world,” Patrick Bergin, CEO of the African Wildlife Foundation, said in a statement released to the media prior to the ceremony. “As the largest market for ivory in the world, China has a very important role to play in helping end the elephant slaughter in Africa. The Chinese government is to be commended for taking the issue seriously.” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe echoed those sentiments in a statement issued today, remarking that “this destruction underscores China’s renewed commitment to the growing fight against global wildlife trafficking that now threatens the future of African elephants, rhinoceros, tigers, and other iconic species.”
But in contrast to the U.S., which destroyed its entire stockpile of illegal ivory, China destroyed only a small portion of its much larger stockpile at today’s event. Indeed, Hong Kong alone has a hoard of some 30 tons of confiscated ivory. What is China going to do with the remaining contraband? Furthermore, what is it going to do about its legal domestic ivory trade, which provides cover for illegal trade? If China is serious about tackling wildlife crime, it will need to address these concerns. China is not alone in this latter regard—the U.S. and other countries also have legal ivory markets that allow for the laundering of illegal ivory, and these loopholes need to be closed–but the stakes are that much higher in China because it is responsible for as much as 70 percent of the global demand for ivory.
For China to change its policy on domestic trade, “the global pressure needs to be continued,” Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, told Scientific American. “More importantly, the issue needs to be elevated to a higher level of government, for them to realize the damage ivory trade has done to China’s image around the world.”