By Clarissa Hughes
The Chinese government has been lauded for crushing six tonnes of ivory last week in a move that was hailed as a first step to addressing rampant elephant poaching in Africa. As a publicity gesture it sends the right signals. What everyone now awaits is the concrete action to back it up. So what more can China do to address a demand that is bringing the largest land mammal on earth to the brink of extinction?
Ivory ornaments and trinkets are highly desired possessions amongst China's rising middle class and it's this demand that is fuelling elephant poaching in Africa. Research conducted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) indicated that 70% of ivory consumers were unaware that elephants were being poached to supply the demand. Campaigns to address this misconception have, until now, been led by non-governmental organisations. The Chinese government could prove its mettle by launching campaigns across all state media with the message that elephants are being slaughtered, often in the most inhumane way, for their ivory.
A survey conducted on ivory consumers in China by WildAid in 2012 confirmed that the Chinese public is fertile ground for sensitisation to the issue when it found that 99.2% of respondents agreed that “we should ensure elephants exist on earth” - a fact corroborated by the 'going-viral' of a story on blood ivory in the private newspaper Southern Weekly recently.
Another action the government could take is to specifically ban ivory ornaments and utensils from official reception dinners in the same way that shark fin and bird's nest soup have been banned by the Communist Party. This too would send a clear signal.
However, while media campaigns and leading-by-example are important proclamations, they don't deal with the practicality of the issue – the trade itself.
As the greatest consumer of ivory in the world, China has to lead on this.
There is much debate around stockpiles of legal versus illegal ivory, and while some are mooting that robust ivory stock management systems be put in place to track ivory, the fact of the matter is that the authorities have been unable to control this.
A survey conducted in 2011 by IFAW of China's ivory markets found the following:
“Of a total of 158 retail shops and carving factories visited, only 57 were licensed by the government, representing a compliance rate of just 36 percent. Nearly two-thirds of the ivory facilities visited did not display a Certificate of Registration and were not on the list of State Forestry Administration-approved facilities, thus were completely illegal. Among the licensed facilities, 59.6 percent were found to violate the system in some way. The most common form of violation of the ivory product registration system in licensed retail outlets was the separation of ivory products from their identification cards.” Identification cards are meant to verify that the source of the ivory is legal.
There is no reason to believe this will change. On the contrary, with the Chinese government attempting to control the circulation of ivory, the existence of the black market will continue because government prices are higher than illegal stock.
“China observed the ivory ban for twenty years and has strong penalties for people caught trafficking, but a one-off sale of a legal stockpile in 2008 appears to have roused a dormant demand and ivory poaching in Africa began to surge,” says Save the Elephants, a non-governmental organisation headed by Iain Douglas-Hamilton.
“The key element [for resolving the crisis\ would be a domestic sales ban for ivory in China. This was very effective for rhino horn when China did it in 1993,” says Peter Knights, Executive Director of WildAid. “More awareness and enforcement are needed. Ongoing public awareness campaigns through state media being the other important factor,” he adds.
Why should the Chinese government act?
From the 2012 WildAid survey it would appear there is little political risk on the domestic front. Actually the reverse is true. A total of 94% of respondents agreed that the “Chinese government should impose a ban on ivory to help stop poaching elephants in Africa”.
In addition, with growing economies and rising affluence in Africa, China's own business interests are at stake.
Live elephants mean African jobs, African revenues and African pride. While the tourism industry is the benefactor of jobs and revenues China must remember that Africans take great pride in their wildlife heritage. It is felt across all industries. Exploitation by any name is keenly grasped here.
For the Chinese government banning the ivory trade would be a public relations exercise of potentially far greater reward than risk. In a world aware that elephant poaching is an international crisis, it would provide substance to the ivory crush.