Less than a week into 2018, predictions are already being made about some of the hot topics that will be at the forefront of the New Year. Among them, China’s Ivory Trade ban.
Ending 2017 on a high note by shuttering the doors of factories that led the trade and even purported its practice has wildlife conservationists and enthusiasts beaming with hope. Widely known as being the largest buyers and sellers in the world for ivory, China has done much to shed its image of a ruthless society unconcerned with the welfare of one of nature’s most beautiful creatures.
With some sources calling 2018 the ‘Year of the Elephant,’ African elephants are making a comeback, fighting to pull their declining population from the ruins of the Red List – the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of endangered species (for the record, African elephants remain on the list of vulnerable animals, between “threatened” and “endangered”). In Africa, and with only a few hundred thousand remaining, the African elephant has continued its decline. This drastically contradicts the much healthier number of 10 million, as was the case in the early 1900’s.
In 1989, a worldwide ban was instituted, forcing a halt to the Ivory Trade and allowing elephant numbers to climb once again. A turning point came in 2008 when despite the ban, China allowed a large legal purchase of ivory from several African nations ultimately opening the doors to poachers who in many cases illegally inserted themselves into the practice. As a result, numbers dwindled once more with as many as 30,000 elephants killed each year largely by poachers. China’s unstable and laissez faire stance on policy development has been a main reason why the illegal Ivory Trade has continued to flourish in the country, despite some state regulations.
African Elephants in the Media
Just a few short months ago, these regal animals once again made headlines when it was announced by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that elephant hunting in Zimbabwe and Zambia would be reinstated, making the imports of “trophies” into the United States legal. Their assessment was supported by the weak and unconvincing argument that such hunting not only promoted local African efforts to both measure and preserve their elephant population, but also raised money for conservation efforts – a high price tag that citizens of other nations seem willing to pay in exchange for bringing a “trophy” back into their home country.
“These positive findings in Zimbabwe and Zambia demonstrate that the Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes that hunting is beneficial to wildlife and that these range countries know how to manage their elephant populations,” the agency announced in a statement in November.
Animal rights groups hurled intense backlash at the decision, forcing U.S. President Donald Trump to table the decision until further notice. Once again, African elephants were back in the news.
As 2017 approached its end, and with the animal still fresh in the minds of nature preservation organizations, China now faced the daunting task of holding firm to its promises while the world watched in scrutiny.
The History of Ivory in China
To understand exactly how the country came to have an affinity for ivory means taking a look back into a history steeped in tradition and cultural heritage.
The African elephant’s elegant stride and modest disposition lends a hand to their regality. In China and many other countries, ivory represents not only a status symbol, but also good luck, success, and it is a source for Chinese medicines. Ivory is also used for jewelry and ornament making. When we think about commerce during ancient times or modern day economic downturns, items of significant opulence – think spices, jewels and other precious commodities – symbolized the strength of a nation. China was no exception. In fact, one of the traditional uses of ivory is in creating intricately detailed carvings either passed down from generation to generation or sold to make a living.
Today, these carvings are sold in shops and displayed in museums all around the country, ornate carvings play a role in the tourism and trade industry. Foreigners are especially drawn to these carvings as a historical depiction of modern day craftsmen. It is for this reason that some in China are not in favor of the ban as it is seen as moving away from a tradition that holds deep appreciation and value.
What the Trade Means Today
While in the last year, China has seen a market decline in demand for ivory, there are still future concerns. Some experts fear that the ban will only serve to drive demand, further fueling illegal trading as poachers become more desperate for cash. This has long supported the argument for regulating the practice rather than banning it entirely. Throughout the years, poachers have demonstrated sophistication. Stashing tusks in hidden compartments in shipping containers as they make their way inside Chinese borders is part desperation and part organized crime.
Either way, in 2018 and beyond, China will be viewed from the lens of a microscope, the world watching in angst as to whether their promise is honored indefinitely.