Ivory chess figurines at the Panjiayuan Market. Beijing. China

China on Thursday announced a year-long ban on imported ivory carvings. The announcement came days before the Duke of Cambridge, known for his campaigns to protect wildlife, visits the country. Is there more to the ban than shrewd diplomacy?

The perfunctory announcement on the website of the State Forestry Administration, the bureau that oversees wildlife trade, said that for one year it had stopped issuing permits for ivory carvings obtained since 1975, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) went into effect.

Limited legal sales of ivory do occur in China. This domestic trade – which conservationists say acts as a cover for a thriving black market – will not be affected by the ban since it prohibits only carved imports.

Before the moratorium Chinese traders could import ivory acquired through legal trophy hunting and small amounts of carved ivory from Zimbabwe and Namibia.

A signatory of CITES, China is nevertheless the world’s largest consumer of smuggled tusks, with a surge of demand in recent years leading to rampant poaching on the African continent.

In three years 100,000 African elephants have been slaughtered for their tusks, according to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year.

Meanwhile, between 800 and 900 smuggling cases are detected in China each year, according to customs statistics.

In recent decades as the wealth of middle-class Chinese has grown, so too has their taste for expensive and exotic animal products such as tiger bones, rhinoceros horns and tusks. Intricately carved tusks or ivory trinkets convey status and are given as sweeteners to bribe officials.

Since 1989 countries with elephant populations have been allowed to sell stocks of ivory from animals that died from natural causes. During the last such sale, in 2008, China bought 68 tonnes.

A handful of state-owned companies release this legal ivory onto the domestic market at a rate of five tonnes a year. It is sold in around 180 licensed shops accompanied by a photo ID.

With an estimated demand of 200 tonnes a year and ever-dwindling stocks, the price of ivory has skyrocketed, rising from around $750 in 2010 to $2,100 in 2014.

China is making efforts to dampen the illegal trade. Six tonnes of elephant tusks and ivory trinkets were seized and ceremoniously destroyed in Dongguan, a city in southern China, in January 2014.

But Yao Ming, the former NBA star, may prove more effective. A documentary made with WildAid showing an emotional Mr Yao towering over a tusk-less elephant carcass recently aired on state television.

Last year, following a similar campaign backed by Mr Yao, demand for shark’s fin soup fell by half.

 

Link to The Telegraph