Top level government representatives from 50 countries will gather this month to apply pressure on China to clamp down on ivory consumption within its borders. A growing Chinese middle class has stoked demand for the luxury material, leading to a killing spree in Africa. But there is also a deeper security concern - African militia and criminal groups sell the ivory for cash, which they use to buy weapons. Natasha Moriarty investigates.
The summit aims to bring together top-level government representatives from 50 countries and for the first time it is hoped one of China’s vice premiers will attend.
Prince William is expected to make a speech at the conference, which will be attended by Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague. US Secretary of StateJohn Kerry will also be present, along with the leaders of several African countries.
Organisers hope that Chinese media icons Jackie Chan - the actor - and Yao Ming - the 7ft 6in former basketball star - will attend, to ensure the conference receives widespread coverage in China.
Andrew Leun, an independent expert on China, says:
“There’s an important role to be played by media icons like Jackie Chan .. the Chinese want to stand tall in the world not just because of the growth of the economy but because they embrace world values … nationalism and pride will play a big role in stamping out the ivory trade.”
China drives ivory trade
The explosive growth of China’s emerging middle class has brought with it sweeping economic change and social transformation – and a rapacious appetite for ivory.
China is responsible for over 70 percent of global demand for illegal ivory, and the Chinese are also the world’s leading consumers of tiger bone soup and rhino horn cures.
Without the demand from China, conservationists say the illegal ivory trade would all but dry up.
The Chinese have coveted ivory for centuries. Hand-carved ivory objects are proudly displayed in Chinese homes to symbolise wealth and status.
But now, unprecedented numbers are able to afford the precious material.
China’s economic boom has created a vast upper-middle class, and this new consumer group has caused the price of ivory to triple on the streets of Beijing.
Slaughter in Africa
Tens of thousands of African elephants are now being slaughtered to meet the demand. Last year, poaching in Africa was at its highest level since an international ban on ivory was applied in 1989.
Conservationists say the frenzy of killing now threatens the future survival of elephants.
Though much of the ivory traded is illegal, loopholes in trade regulations allow the sale of ivory in some circumstances. Countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe – where elephant populations are stable – are allowed to sell trophy licences that allow hunters to bring ivory across borders. Ivory obtained before the international ban is also legal - which provides an effective smokescreen for criminal trade.
Will Travers of Born Free says:
“China is the biggest market because in 2008 the international community decided it was acceptable to sell some stockpiled ivory to China and Japan to satisfy demand … what it did was it stimulated demand…”
But global leaders are not motivated by concern for elephants and rhinos alone. They smell danger.
Links with armed groups
The underground ivory trade is increasingly militarised. Militia groups sell ivory, and use this cash to buy weapons.
Organized crime syndicates link up with them to move the ivory around the world, exploiting turbulent states, porous borders and corrupt officials from sub-Saharan Africa all the way to China.
Links have been established with Africa’s most notorious armed groups, al-Shabaab –the al-Qaeda cell group involved in the recent Westgate Mall siege in Nairobi – and central Africa’s Lord’s Resistance Army.
Last week, the UN Security Council made moves to impose international sanctions and freeze the assets of illegal wildlife traffickers.
We spoke to Charlie Mayhew, CEO of conservation group Tusk Trust, about the security concerns.
The London conference will focus on four objectives: strengthening law enforcement; reducing demand; international collaboration; and helping Africa communities to find sources of income linked to protecting the animals rather than killing them. Higher penalties for poaching and smuggling will be a key topic of discussion.
All 38 African countries with elephants have agreed that their highest priority is to protect their elephants.
Conservationists hope the conference will herald an era when concern for animal welfare – rather than expensive trinkets – will be the hottest status symbol in China.