As China considers ivory trade ban, US must act

China’s State Forestry Administration promised that China would “strictly control ivory processing and trade until the commercial processing and sale of ivory and its products are eventually halted.”

In a move to show their commitment to ending the ivory trade, Chinese officials ceremoniously destroyed nearly 1,500 pounds of confiscated ivory last Friday at an event in Beijing.

The crush itself was an important symbolic event, but the biggest highlight of the day was a declaration from the State Forestry Administration promising that China would “strictly control ivory processing and trade until the commercial processing and sale of ivory and its products are eventually halted.”

With the African elephant population reduced from 1.2 million in 1989 to only about 420,000 in 2012, it is a critical time for this kind of strict action.

Halting the ivory trade is the best way to halt poaching, and as my colleague Grace Gabriel noted, China’s announcement “is THE outcome IFAW has been working towards for the last decade.”

But hugely important decisions remain: What’s the timeline for this shutdown? What loopholes might remain?

These aren’t just questions for the Chinese government. You may remember similar words from Sally Jewell, the US Secretary of the Interior, almost a year and a half ago: Following the release of the White House’s National Strategy for Combatting Wildlife Trafficking, Secretary Jewell proclaimed that “a commercial [ivory] ban is a critical element in the President’s strategy to stop illegal wildlife trafficking and to shut down criminal markets that encourage poaching.”

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has taken several interim steps toward this goal, but the big prize – a crucial change to the Endangered Species Act’s elephant regulations – has hovered just out of reach for an agonizingly long time as it winds its way through a bureaucratic maze. Meanwhile, the United States remains one of the world’s biggest markets for ivory, and American demand contributes to poaching in Africa and the rapid decline of elephant populations.

With Friday’s landmark announcement in Beijing, it’s time for the White House to take action and put this ivory rule change out for public evaluation (before the regulation becomes law, citizens and interest groups will have the opportunity to weigh in and advocate for changes to the proposal).

Fortunately, federal agencies aren’t the only ones with a role to play. That’s why IFAW and other wildlife conservation groups have been advocating for state legislation that targets the ivory trade at the local level, making it much more difficult for smugglers to profit off poaching.  So far, successful measures have been passed in New York and New Jersey, while others are pending in states like Oregon, California, Vermont and Massachusetts --- but we still have a long way to go to eradicate the ivory trade from the U.S.

The ivory trade anywhere is a threat to elephants everywhere.

China’s announcement puts the ball back in our court. The U.S. must lead by example to show that we will not be an active player in the devastation and eventual extinction of such a majestic and intelligent species.

It’s up to us to change the laws -- and actually enforce them -- before it’s too late.


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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
President and Chief Executive Officer
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Elsayed Ahmed Mohamed, Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
Executive Vice President
Executive Vice President
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Pauline Verheij, Program Manager, Wildlife Crime
Program Manager, Wildlife Crime
Rikkert Reijnen, Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Country Representative, Germany
Country Representative, Germany
Staci McLennan, Director, EU Office
Director, EU Office
Tania McCrea-Steele, Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy