It looks better on an elephant. Photo: Photoshot
FOR anybody who fears that China’s interest in elephants’ tusks could spell doom for the great beasts, there have been two pieces of good news. On September 25th Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, joined Barack Obama in pledging “significant and timely steps” to halt commercial trade in ivory. Then on October 15th China announced a one-year ban on the import of ivory hunting trophies from Africa, closing a big loophole. Wildlife activists are delighted. These moves should have “a profound effect” on elephant numbers, says Peter Knights of WildAid, a charity.
The world’s elephant population has dived from 1.2m in 1980 to under 500,000 today. In 1989 the sale of ivory was banned worldwide. But in 1999 and again in 2008, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a conservation pact, allowed the sale of stockpiles of ivory from southern Africa to China. The countries vowed to use the proceeds for conservation; China claimed it had a robust registration system that would keep illegal ivory out. But conservationists rightly predicted the concession would fuel more smuggling and so more killing.
Permitted sales became a cover for illegal ones. In 2010-12 about 100,000 elephants were slain for their tusks. In the past five years, Mozambique and Tanzania have lost half their elephants to poaching.
This dire trend reflects China’s deeper engagement with Africa, combined with corruption and the presence of criminal gangs. But it seems that Chinese leaders have seen the trade’s effects on their reputation, says Dominic Dyer of the Born Free Foundation, a charity. They should now close the legal carving workshops and ban the domestic trade, too, he adds.
Despite strong demand for ivory among China’s rising middle class, attitudes may gradually be changing. As of 2012, nearly half of Chinese people saw elephant poaching as a problem, according to a survey by WildAid. The figure has been boosted by the support of celebrities. Yao Ming, a basketball player, and Jackie Chan, an actor, appear on posters everywhere with the message: “When the buying stops, the killing can too.” The government has donated $200m worth of media space every year since 2008.
Opinion on ivory has shifted fast, says Mr Knights, partly because of the success of another campaign, to protect sharks. In the markets of Guangzhou, the global centre for the trade, dried shark fins have fallen from 3,000 yuan ($470) per kilo five years ago to 1,000 yuan today, as Chinese people abjure shark-fin soup, a delicacy.
WildAid raised its voice over that issue, too, but more important was the Communist Party’s ban in 2013 of shark-fin soup at official banquets, part of a drive against corruption and excess. The Hong Kong government followed, as did airlines and hotels. A survey in 2013 found 85% of people said they had stopped eating shark-fin soup in the past three years.
One scourge is untouched by all this: the illegal trade in rhinoceros horn. More than 1,200 rhinos were killed for their horns in 2014 in South Africa alone, up from just 13 killed in 2007. This partly reflects a huge rise in demand in Vietnam, but China is also a consumer. Ground rhino horn is believed to cure fever and improve sexual performance. One kilo can cost up to $70,000.
Ominously, some African nations now want a one-off sale of rhino-horn stocks, as happened twice with ivory. To secure this, South Africa must win two-thirds of the member states at the next CITES conference, which it hosts next year. Mr Dyer hopes other countries, including China, will dissuade the Africans. “We are in exactly the same place we were with ivory nearly ten years ago,” he frets.
From the print edition: China