Will US China ‘Near Total Ivory Ban’ Help Elephants in Time?

The Presidents of China and the United States pledged to enact “nearly complete bans on ivory imports and exports.”A whirlwind week in Washington, DC, came to a close with a major success in battling the elephant poaching crisis. In a joint statement last Friday afternoon, the Presidents of China (Mr. Xi Jinping) and the United States (Mr. Barack Obama) pledged to enact “nearly complete bans on ivory imports and exports, including significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies,” and promised to “take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.”

The United States government had already committed to a “near total ban” on ivory trade, and this could represent a major step forward by their Chinese counterparts.

China is the planet’s clear #1 market for ivory, but the U.S. isn’t far behind and decisive action by the two countries would be a truly historic leap forward in the global effort to save African elephants.

And not a moment too soon: Poachers kill 35,000 of these animals every year for their ivory tusks, and scientists warn that Central Africa’s forest elephants could be nearly extinct in the wild in a decade.

African savannah elephants, too, are being poached at shocking rates and appear to be on the verge of regional extinctions unless the killing stops.

The bulletin cut through the normally-slow Friday news cycle in Washington, where President Xi was conducting his first state visit to this country.

Next to hot-button topics like military tensions and cybersecurity threats, the two leaders probably found wildlife trafficking to be an easy area of congruence.

It wouldn’t be their only major environmental commitment of the weekend, with China announcing a potentially game changing move to restrict carbon emissions alongside further climate mitigation work by the United States, as the countries lead up to a make-or-break global summit this winter in Paris.

Coming on the heels of Pope Francis’ visit to the Capitol (and, later, the United Nations in New York City, where he urged swift action on climate change), the message from world leaders is loud and clear: We are at a pivotal moment in history, when all nations must pull together to protect the planet, its ecosystems and its inhabitants.

It’s worth taking a breath now and asking what, in actuality, will happen in the wake of the leaders’ agreement on banning ivory.

First off, it is a “commitment” to stopping the ivory trade, not a law. At least, not yet.

The United States Fish & Wildlife Service has already proposed a rule that would let them tighten many of the loopholes on the trade within the US—the public was given 30 days to comment on the proposal, a period that ends today, Monday, September 28th. After that, the rule will work its way through the bureaucratic pipeline before eventually becoming the law of the land, but we have yet to see what the final details will be.

IFAW is concerned that the proposal does not go quite far enough to stop illegal ivory sales, sport-hunted trophy imports, and some other elements of the ivory trade, but we believe that it’s still a major improvement on the status quo – IF it doesn’t get watered down in the pipeline, and IF enforcement of the law is prioritized.

On the Chinese side, implementation is also key, but we have far fewer details about what steps they actually plan to take to stop imports, exports, and domestic trade.

As in the U.S., officials must focus on a one-two punch of border inspections and strict oversight of retailers, to ensure that smuggled ivory doesn’t make it into storefront windows.

However, in China, the government is currently responsible for allocating stockpiled ivory to carving workshops, and for a state-run ivory sales registration system, both of which give officials a significant measure of control over the legal trade.

Illegal sales are inextricably bound up with legal sales, and few consumers (or experts, for that matter) can tell the difference between a carved tusk from 1800 and one from 2015, to say nothing of a small piece of jewelry, chopsticks, or other ivory item.

If Presidents Obama and Xi follow through on their pledge, it would send an unmistakable message to buyers and sellers that trading in ivory isn’t worth the consequences. In China, where President Xi’s government austerity campaign banning shark fin soup from official consumption had resulted in a 75% reduction in shark fin consumption within a year, there is hope that this pledge, when implemented, will yield instant results.

Both nations have already destroyed large amounts of stockpiled ivory, helping to broadcast this message in advance of the legal restructuring.

For both the Xi and Obama Administrations, another key part of this pledge is the timing. With tens of thousands of African elephants killed annually, every month that passes without ivory trade prohibitions is a month of carnage.

In the best case scenario, the US Fish & Wildlife Service may have their rules finalized and ready to roll out in two or three months; more likely, this won’t happen until the spring of 2016 or even later.

China’s State Forestry Administration has already stopped some commercial ivory imports, but it will take time to prepare the rest of their action plan, and time is not on our side right now.

It is also important to acknowledge that the poaching crisis supplies blood ivory for nations besides the United States and China, with major illicit markets in Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, and elsewhere.

Those governments’ leaders bear the same responsibility as Xi and Obama, and must resist the temptation to allow business as usual in the wake of this announcement. And at the next conference of CITES, the body that regulates international trade in ivory and other wildlife products, representatives from all countries must band together to put a stop to this destructive industry once and for all.

Ultimately, the fate of elephants rests in the hands of those who would buy their ivory, so if we are to be successful in safeguarding elephants for generations to come, there is precious little room for compromise or persistent trade loopholes.

Keep an eye on this space for developing news and insights into the White House announcement. Friday, September 25th could well mark the turning point towards recovery.


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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
Peter LaFontaine, Campaigns Manager, IFAW Washington, D.C.
Campaigns Manager, IFAW Washington, D.C.
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