Ivory markets are set to shut down following the banning of the trade in the world’s biggest market, China, which is good news for the African elephant.
Wildlife activists will be closely watching other Asian markets, led by Vietnam and Hong Kong, that have also provided the market for ivory.
Last week, China’s State Council announced a ban on all ivory trade and processing activities in the country by the end of this year. This signals the implementation of President Xi Jinping’s joint commitment with US President Barack Obama, in 2015, to end the legal and illegal trade in ivory.
The ban by China — with an estimated 70 per cent of the global consumption — will be done in stages; the processing and sale of ivory will stop by March 31, followed by all registered traders being phased out, bringing an end to the trade in the country by the end of the year.
“There will be a stop in the ivory fixed-point processing unit or point-of-sale processing and sales of ivory and products activities by the end of the year,” the statement from the State Council, released last Friday, says. The news comes barely six months after Beijing announced it would push for the total ban on the ivory trade within its territory by the end of the year.
Yan Xun, deputy general director of the country’s Department of Wildlife Conservation and Nature Reserve Management, had said that by the end of 2016 China would set a timetable to phase out commercial trade in ivory
The move by China follows its four-year ban on ivory hunting trophy imports imposed last year by the Chinese Forestry Administration.
During President Jinping’s visit to the US last September, President Obama pressed Beijing to take significant and timely steps to end the trade.
Analysts now fear that illegal traders, holding large inventories of ivory, will seek out new markets in Asia, just as they did in China after Japan banned ivory products.
Edwin Wiek from Wildlife Friends Foundation said traders are likely to go underground.
“I am sceptical about the ban’s effectiveness. I don’t see the victory yet, until we have dealt also with the alternative markets. Then, we can claim victory,” Mr Wiek said.
Cristian Samper, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said that a ban in both China and the US would send a message to the world that ivory markets are shutting down.
“Elephants now have a fighting chance. This also is a warning to the poachers that they are now officially out of business,” Mr Samper said.
Patrick Bergin, chief executive of the Nairobi-based African Wildlife Foundation, said that all countries — and especially those that are source, transit or destination countries for illegal wildlife products — should have a firm stance on trafficking.
“Laws around wildlife crime must be strong if they are to send a message that trafficking in ivory and other wildlife products will not be tolerated. Strong laws around wildlife crime and strong enforcement of those laws are absolutely critical in deterring traffickers and poachers, and each country has an obligation to review and strengthen its laws and close loopholes,” Dr Bergin said.
Last July, the US announced a near total ban on trade in elephant ivory.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service, under the Endangered Species Act, instituted a near-total ban on the domestic commercial trade in African elephant ivory, substantially limiting imports, exports and sales across the country.
The rule was the latest of several actions implemented by the service aimed at reducing opportunities for wildlife traffickers to trade illegal ivory under the guise of a legal product.
It was also a follow-up to one of the action plans promised in Nairobi during a visit by President Obama in July, when he announced a proposed rule that “bans the sale of virtually all ivory across our state lines, which will eliminate the market for illegal ivory in the United States.”
Outgoing Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who serves as co-chair of the President’s Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, said that the action underscored the United States’ leadership and commitment to ending the scourge of elephant poaching and the tragic impact it is having on wild populations.
“We hope other nations will act quickly and decisively to stop the flow of blood ivory by implementing similar regulations, which are crucial to ensuring our grandchildren and their children know these iconic species,” Ms Jewel said in an interview with The EastAfrican.
In the past four years, an estimated 100,000 elephants have been killed in Africa for their ivory, approximately one every 15 minutes. Poaching still continues at an alarming rate. African ivory is highly sought after in China where it is seen as a status symbol; the price of one kilogramme can be as high as $1,100.
In January last year, Hong Kong announced that it would ban the import and export of ivory. Hong Kong’s chief executive Leung Chun-ying told legislators that they were determined to end the trade by the end of 2016.
“We are very concerned about the illegal poaching of elephants in Africa. We want to kickstart legislative procedures as soon as possible to ban the import and export of elephant hunting trophies. In the meantime, we are exploring other appropriate measures to phase out the local ivory trade,” Mr Leung said.