By Simon Denyer
NANANGZHEN, China — China sent a strong signal Monday that it would do more to join global efforts to protect African elephants from rampant poaching, conducting its first public destruction of confiscated ivory.
About 25,000 of the estimated 500,000 elephants in Africa are illegally slaughtered each year for their tusks, conservationists say. It is a $10 billion banned industry that draws in global crime syndicates and African terrorist groups, and threatens to wipe out elephants from some parts of the continent within a decade.
Much of the illegally obtained ivory ends up in China, the world’s biggest market for the smuggled-in material. And although authorities here have stepped up anti-trafficking efforts in recent years, they have failed to turn the tide.
On Monday, China conducted a ceremony that is said underscored its determination to oppose the trade, with workers in overalls feeding scores of weighty tusks and hundreds of small, intricately carved ornaments into a large, noisy green crushing machine in front of a crowd of local officials, foreign diplomats, conservationists and journalists in this small town just outside the southern city of Guangzhou.
More than six tons of ivory were destroyed.
“We also hope this event will raise the public awareness of conservation, and intensify the responsibilities of enforcement agencies,” said Zhao Shucong, director of the State Forestry Administration.
Zhao admitted that ivory smuggling was “still raging” and said that China was “in urgent need of sincere collaboration with different countries and international organizations” to cope with the severe challenges involved in elephant conservation.
Past global efforts to curb ivory poaching have at times dissolved into finger-pointing between Africa, where corruption and weak law enforcement have allowed poachers to prosper, and countries such as China, where most of the ivory ends up. But in the past year, the crisis of a rapidly dwindling elephant population has focused minds, and brought a new mood of global cooperation, with ivory burning or crush events taking place in the United States, Tanzania and elsewhere, international conservation officials said.
President Obama signed an executive order in July to release an extra $10 million to fight wildlife trafficking in Africa, calling the situation an escalating international crisis that affects the United States. The administration also raised the issue of curbing demand as a separate subject in its dialogue with China for the first time last year; in September, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced a global effort to curb the practice.
Part of the problem, conservationists say, is that China continues to allow a legal, licensed trade in ivory. It classifies ivory carving as part of its traditional culture and allows 37 workshops to operate, mainly using a stockpile of ivory it bought in 2008, during a period when elephant numbers were relatively healthy and limited international trade was allowed.
This legal trade has allowed a parallel illegal trade to flourish, with some carving workshops supplementing their meager government supplies with ivory obtained from poaching, conservationists say. In a recent visit to an antiques market in Beijing, new ivory ornaments were widely available without licenses, albeit under the counter. Online, ivory ornaments are also sold freely without licenses, with sellers using code words, such as plastic, to describe the products and evade the ban.
There is also considerable ignorance in China about the cruelty involved in the ivory trade. Ivory in the Mandarin language is translated as “elephant teeth,” and surveys have shown that most Chinese people do not know elephants have to die for the ivory to be taken.
The Chinese ivory-crushing event appeared to have been hastily scheduled ahead of a similar event in France and a global summit on the subject next month in London, hosted by British Prime Minister David Cameron and attended by Britain’s Prince Charles, with 50 heads of state invited. Conservationists called it a significant, positive step, and U.S. officials also gave it a warm welcome.
“It sends a very strong signal to the world, but most importantly to the Chinese people, about the commitment of the Chinese government to be part of the solution to this global problem,” Bryan Arroyo, assistant director of international affairs in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said just before the event. “China is at a pivotal point that could make a huge difference.” More....