By John Brinkley
When my daughter was five years old, she agonized over what to sacrifice for Lent and gamely decided on chocolate candy.
Chocolate ice cream, chocolate cake and chocolate milk shakes were okay. But chocolate candy would be off limits for the 40 days of Lent.
What reminds me of this is China’s recent announcement that it would ban imports of carved ivory for one year.
The Chinese government said its purpose was “to observe, understand, and scientifically evaluate the impact on elephant conservation of having such a measure in place.”
Who are they trying to kid? Everybody knows what impact it will have on elephant conservation: none.
This is more of a PR effort than anything else. The government announced the ban about 10 days before Prince William of Great Britain was to visit China. They knew that elephant conservation was a favorite cause of his and suspected he might make noise about it, which he did. He said elephant poaching was “a vicious form of criminality,” and said China should be a leader in a global effort to stop it.
China is also hoping to piggy-back at some point onto the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Since the United States is a party to it, they know they should at least give the appearance of cleaning up their act.
Among China’s countless depredations against the global environment is its insatiable demand for ivory, which drives about 70 percent of elephant poaching in Africa. About 30,000 elephants are slaughtered illegally every year. If that pace continues, they will be extinct in less than 20 years.
Chinese consumers of ivory don’t have to depend on Africans to carve it into Buddha statues, jewelry and Mahjong tiles. Ivory carving is a thriving industry in China and has been for thousands of years.
Yun Sun, a Chinese foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, pointed out that the ban was put in place by the State Forestry Administration, which has no means of enforcing it. The SFA issues permits for ivory imports, but it has no authority over the Border Patrol or the Customs Service.
One rather doubts that the lack of an import permit would prevent anyone from driving a truckload of carved ivory into China.
“I was in Ghana last year and I went to see the local market and people saw me and thought that I was Chinese,” Sun said. “So they were giving me tips as to where to buy ivory products. And I told them that, ‘No, I don’t need ivory products. . . . Your Customs (Service) does not allow people to bring ivory products outside the country and the Chinese Customs also have a pretty clear policy on this issue.’ The local Chinese response was, ‘Don’t worry about it. Those issues can be handled quite easily.’”
In fairness, it should be noted that emerging economies make for increasingly affluent citizens, who are tired of eating chicken and goats. They want to enjoy sirloin steaks and French wine, drive BMWs, and get Botox injections. And they don’t like Americans lecturing them about sustainability and other bourgeois Western clap-trap. China is not unique in this regard, but the enormity of its population makes for an outsized impact on the resources it consumes.
It should also be noted that there is a growing movement in China to make people aware of the damage the ivory trade does. For example, the retired NBA player Mao Ying has dedicated himself to persuading his countrymen to stop buying ivory. He appeared in a documentary about elephant poaching that was screened in Beijing last August. And Chinese people often see television infomercials about wildlife poaching.
If China were serious about ending the slaughter of African elephants, it would ban all ivory imports indefinitely. Period. Other countries have done it.
But that’s not in the cards, Sun said.
“The Chinese people do not necessarily think that the trade is anything wrong,” she said. “People in China see ivory products as something fancy and something desirable. So, for the government to impose a ban permanently, I don’t know whether the public opinion base is there yet.”
The owner of an ivory shop in Shanghai, who wouldn’t give his name, suggested that it wasn’t.
“People kill elephants so the ivory becomes more valuable, which will make people live better and happier,” he told the New York Times in February. “Elephants die anyway. If they become extinct, it really doesn’t matter.”
If he was expressing a widely-held view, you can say goodbye forever to African elephants.