In an unprecedented move aimed at countering international condemnation of skyrocketing Chinese demand for ivory that is decimating the African elephant populations, China last Thursday announced a one-year moratorium on the import of ivory carvings.
VIEW POINT WITH WISDOM MDZUNGAIRI
China’s State Forestry Administration, which oversees wildlife trade, published a notice of the temporary ban on its website, stating that the agency had stopped issuing import permits for carvings obtained since 1975, when a United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) went into effect.
This, according to officials was done to let the authorities evaluate the ban’s effectiveness in protecting African elephants.
But international conservation organisations said the moratorium would do little to slow the surge in poaching that has killed 100 000 African elephants in the last three years.
Ironically, China licenses 35 ivory carving factories and 130 ivory retailers to sell “legal” ivory. Nonetheless, it is the factories and retailers that sustain the current poaching crisis.
“Legal” ivory is obtained from the 2008 Cites sanctioned sale of ivory stockpiles from four African countries, however, a 2011 survey by International Fund for Animal Welfare found that out of all the carving factories and retailers in China, 101 were not licenced or were smuggling ivory.
While the ban is a noble development, it can be argued that because this prohibits only the import of ivory carvings, it does not affect China’s legal domestic ivory trade, which has prompted an increase in the price of ivory and provides legal camouflage for a booming trade in illicit ivory smuggled into China’s licensed carving factories and stores.
Therefore, it could even perpetuate the desire for ivory among wealthy Chinese while stimulating demand for illegal ivory laundering. Beijing has deliberately ignored its prime role in the illegal ivory trade, which has soared since Cites, permitted China to buy 68 tonnes of African ivory in 2008.
Before Thursday’s moratorium notice, China was reportedly permitted to import ivory acquired through legal trophy hunting, and limited personal amounts of carved ivory obtained from Zimbabwe and Namibia.
But will the moratorium affect Zimbabwe’s elephant population? The country should not lose sight of the fact that China’s ban could have been the result of a global petition to halt its ivory consumption levels as it was fueling civil strife in some of its supposed development partners in Africa.
The petition had received 73 528 signatures by Thursday, calling on the Chinese to show political leadership as more jumbos are being killed each year than are being born.
This ban came at a time Zimbabwe is facing serious criticism for allowing the export of live baby elephants to China, United Arab Emirates and France with accusations that entire families of Africa’s largest land mammal could be destroyed.
It is a fact that some jumbos do not survive the stress caused by such long trips, not to mention the fact that the ones that do survive will be subjected to a life of captivity in a habitat they are not born to live in.
Yet, exporting live baby elephants to China could be a viable option for Zimbabwe than for the Chinese to buy poached ivory. Tragically, one elephant is killed by a poacher every 15 minutes for its ivory. The rate of killing compared to natural population growth means Africa’s largest land mammal could soon become extinct.
According to the Environmental Investigation Agency, some 104 tons of ivory were seized globally between 2011 and 2013, equivalent to 15 522 dead elephants. A significant number came from Zimbabwe.
While China’s realisation that poaching in Africa had reached unprecedented levels is commendable, restricting the 12-month ban to ivory imports is insufficient to end the poaching crisis affecting the jumbo population.
A lengthy moratorium on all domestic ivory sales, as well as imports, could be the greatest hope for Africa’s elephants and for quashing the transnational crime of elephant poaching and ivory trafficking that undermines local, regional, and global security.
Africa needs to take stock of the impact China’s move would have on the Motherland in the long-term. This ban should not be for political expedience but a win-win situation with its development partner. We all have a stake in global affairs albeit in our own small way.
Could this be a show of leadership by the world’s largest ivory consumer? No doubt, the continent of Africa hopes to see additional and stronger action by the Chinese on limiting the on-going demand of ivory.
The decision is more welcome given the fact that Chinese arrests (in possession of ivory) had sky-rocketed over the last two years not only in Zimbabwe but across Africa.
It might be pertinent to point out that Zimbabwe is sitting on over 70 tonnes of ivory stockpiles and five tonnes of rhino horns. Ivory sales are banned until 2017 by which time Cites is expected to review the matter.
Globally, the importation of elephant ivory is already prohibited by Cites. Almost 40 000 elephants are poached annually to feed the global demand for ivory in particular China and Vietnam among others whose populations believe using ivory will prolong their lives.
It is believed that 100 elephants are killed every day by armed gangs in Africa. Only 5% of the total mortality succumbs to natural attrition. To imagine that our elephants have been reduced by 65% since 2002, is extremely saddening, hence we need to show leadership especially this year when Zimbabwe is the African Union chair to tame the tide.
Africa’s strategy should be multi-faced –to halt elephant poaching, stop ivory trafficking, discontinue the demand and limit export of baby elephants to other countries.
Africa and China’s continued leadership will be essential if the continent is to make progress reducing these losses and preventing the extinction of one of the world’s most iconic species.
It is time Zimbabwe and the rest of Africa focuses on bolstering elephant protection; educating the public about the link between ivory consumption and elephant poaching, and if need be secure effective moratoria on ivory sales.
Otherwise the notion that Zimbabwe is overpopulated with elephants will eventually count to nothing if long term measures are not taken to protect this majestic species.
It appears that Zimbabwe does not take poaching seriously because of the claim that the country is overpopulated with elephants yet there has never been any credible game count in more than 10 years.
Without this crucial information, one day there may not be any elephant left in the countryside if continued poaching and uncoordinated jumbo sales keep happening. One wonders if China is serious about the ivory imports ban.