Chinese government action will save endangered species

Thousands in Chinese currency were recently seized after being discovered in the hidden cache of a government official.While it might be seen by the majority of the western world as a mere footnote, the joint decree by the general offices of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and the State Council last week to explicitly ban dishes containing shark fins, bird nests and protected wild animals at official receptions and banquets are music to my ears.

President Xi Jinping’s government austerity campaign to root out corruption is finally expanding to include the lavish consumption of wildlife parts and products by government officials.

The anti-corruption campaign, supported overwhelmingly by the Chinese public, targets government officials at all levels who engage in lavish spending of public funds on extravagance such as banquets, travel and buying luxury cars. 

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Since the start of the campaign in early 2013, over 2000 government officials— “tigers and flies,” they  are called depending on the level of their position—have been disciplined, removed from their posts and even faced criminal charges.   

The campaign has already led to a drop in sales of luxury watches, expensive liquors, and other extravagant "gifts" commonly used to bribe officials. 

The linkage between wildlife crime and other forms of violent crime is a proven fact. So are the linkages between the consumption of wildlife parts and products with corruption. Investigations of wildlife markets in China have identified that government officials are often the buyers of elephant ivory, rhino horn, tiger pelts and wine as luxury gifts for their superiors.

A 2007 report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, “Made in China—Farming Tigers to Extinction” uncovered the illegal production of tiger bone wine at China’s largest tiger farming facility. Among the hundreds of huge vats in the underground cellar each containing a tiger carcass, the farm manager proudly pointed out one vat to IFAW investigators, “The liquor is especially reserved for a government official.” 

WEN Qiang, a Chinese government official who was charged and convicted of corruption and rape in 2010, had received many wildlife parts and products as bribes. As shown on the website of a government media outlet, prosecution evidence included mountains of cash, stacks of luxury liquor, room-full of antiques and huge pieces of ivory carvings and entire tusks of elephant ivory, all gifts Wen Qiang received when he was the Chief of Police in the city of Chong Qing.

As captured in IFAW report, “Making a Killing-A 2011 Survey of Ivory Markets in China,” an ivory carving factory in China which had been repeatedly implicated in illegal ivory trade by NGO investigations previously was able to obtain a license to participate in the legal trade of ivory. According to the carving factory owner, he was able to buy the license with a million RMB (equivalent of $158,000USD).

In May, another ivory carving factory owner was sentenced 15 years in prison for his lead role in the smuggling of 7 tons of elephant ivory from eastern Africa in one year. The license he obtained to participate in the legal ivory trade gave him the opportunity to “launder” the ivory he smuggled into China. The prosecution of this licensed ivory trader further demonstrates the possible conflicts of interest in the ivory trade management system.

Gifting elephant ivory, collecting rhino horn, drinking tiger bone wine, eating shark fin soup, displaying polar bear rugs…none of the use of these endangered wildlife species is need-based. 

China's anti-corruption campaign has already led to a drop in sales of luxury watches, expensive liquors, and other extravagant "gifts" commonly used to bribe officials. The consumption of wildlife parts and products to feed the extravagant “want” of a minority of people in China breeds corruption and decadence, threatens the survival of endangered wildlife, brings shame to the country and blame from around the world.

The Chinese public looks to its leaders for guidance. A recently commissioned IFAW survey by Rapid Asia showed the most compelling reason for Chinese to stop buying ivory is for the government to make ivory buying illegal in all circumstances. This reason would be made even more compelling if backed up by a strong recommendation from a government leader.

In fact, in February 2013 a government announcement to phase out shark fin soup from official banquets led to a decline of shark fin trade by 70 per cent during the week-long Spring Festival in China.

As a key consumer state for wildlife parts and products, China shoulders the responsibility to reduce the demand and consumption.

Only by having clear and unambiguous laws to make the consumption of protected wildlife illegal, combined with vigorous enforcement and meaningful punishment for violations can we stigmatize wildlife consumption, which is the key to reduce demand.

Removing protected wildlife from government officials’ dinner menus is an important first step in stigmatizing the consumption of wildlife.

I applaud the government action and hope that the anti-corruption campaign will deepen and make government officials receiving gifts made of endangered species a prosecutable crime!

--GGG

For more information about IFAW efforts in China, visit our campaign page.

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