On December 30, after years of international and domestic pressure, China announced it would ban all commerce in ivory by the end of this year. It’s a historic decision with important implications for African wildlife conservation. Although China signed the 1989 international ban on the ivory trade and widened this ban earlier in 2016, smugglers continue to supply the legal domestic market. China is the world’s largest ivory market with 50-70 percent of all smuggled elephant ivory ending up there, according to the New York Times.
In recent years, demand for ivory has increased significantly thanks in large part to a growing Chinese middle class, triggering an elephant poaching crisis. Aided by corruption and poverty, ivory has also become a conflict resource of Africa, financing violence around the continent. Scientists believe that today more elephants are being killed than born, with the population of African elephants decreasing by more than 100,000 as a result of poaching in the last ten years. Based on current trends, 50% of Africa’s already dwindling elephant population could disappear in the next decade.
For the past three years, the Aspen Institute’s Energy and Environment Program, in partnership with the African Wildlife Foundation, worked to address Chinese overseas investment in Africa and its impact on conservation and wildlife, convening the China-Africa Wildlife Conservation Council in 2014 and 2015. This Council brought civil society and business leaders from both countries together to elevate conservation as a cornerstone of China-Africa cooperation on sustainable development. Read more about the Council’s work in the 2016 Summer edition of the Aspen Ideas Magazine.
After a final meeting in Kruger National Park, the Council released a statement stressing its support of the then-upcoming 2015 high-level Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and commending “the Chinese and African governments on their recognition of the need to tackle both local poaching and international organized crime.” The statement also recommended “that China extend its ongoing collaboration with African countries to conserve natural wild land habitats by strengthening and expanding the continent’s protected area system for wildlife, ecosystem services, tourism, the benefit of surrounding communities and a sustainable, equitable future.”
The Action Plan published by the FOCAC promised to “explore the possibility of cooperating on wildlife protection demonstration projects and jointly fight against the illegal trade of fauna and flora products, especially addressing endangered species poaching on the African continent, in particular elephants and rhinos.” This latest announcement from Beijing shows that China plans to live up to these promises.
China’s decision follows a similar move in 2016 by the United States, meaning the two largest domestic ivory markets will soon be closed for business. Enforcing China’s domestic ban, along with combating the ivory trade in other countries and addressing other causes of elephant deaths like habitat destruction, will be the next hurdles in the fight to save Africa’s elephant herds.