What You Need to Know Before Celebrating China's Plan to Save the Elephants

January 5th 2017

The world's largest ivory market is closing for business.

China, which has a significant demand for ivory, recently announced that it will ban the trade within its borders by the end of 2017, BuzzFeed News reports. Though this might seem like a win for elephants and animal rights advocates, there's some heated debate over whether this move will actually be successful in saving the lives of the vulnerable species.

ElephantFlickr/Snak3yes - flickr.com

As noted by BuzzFeed News reporter Ellie Hall, the gesture has been celebrated by some because poachers kill up to 30,000 elephants each year to sell their tusks in the ivory trade. Glyn Davies, the acting CEO of the World Wide Fund For Nature-UK (WWF-UK), said in a statement that China has the "largest market for illegal ivory" and that this decision "symbolizes the urgency with which this action is needed." To prepare for the change, China will begin closing down some of its processing centers for ivory in March.

It's not a sure bet that China's move will solve the poaching problem.

Jeffrey Gettleman wrote in a December 31 New York Times piece that China's move could potentially fuel underground trade, citing the country's "underground trade in tiger bones," which thrives despite a ban. Wildlife investigator Karl Ammann told Gettleman that some ivory factories have already relocated to Vietnam.
TuskFlickr/Steve Snodgrass - flickr.com

The New York Times editorial board highlighted this very concern in a January 3 piece, which questions China's plans for enforcing the new rule:

"In principle, the closing of the Chinese market, which has accounted for 50 to 70 percent of illegal ivory, will go a long way toward extinguishing the traffic in ivory. But Beijing has often been lax in following up on worthy decisions, and any illicit trade as lucrative as ivory could easily sneak through any cracks. Another danger is that, once China vacates the market, Asian countries such as Vietnam, Myanmar or the Philippines could try to move in."

As Davies notes, there still remain threats to elephants beyond poaching.

"Governments worldwide must unite and send a strong message that poaching will not be tolerated. Tackling the illegal wildlife trade is an important step to protecting elephant populations, however, it is not the only threat. Climate change and habitat destruction are other key drivers contributing to declining populations of elephants and other species across the world including rhinos, tigers and snow leopards."

The Great Elephant Census of 2016 states that there are only 352,271 African savanna elephants in 18 countries, meaning the population has declined 30 percent in seven years. Mike Chase, the head researcher for the report and the founder of Elephants Without Borders, told National Geographic in April 2016 that elephant poaching has become such a huge issue “that in 10 years' time we could lose 50 percent of Africa’s remaining elephants.”

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