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UPDATED: June 8, 2015 NO. 24 JUNE 11, 2015
Putting a Stop to Poaching
China battles the illegal wildlife trade
By Yuan Yuan

A total of 662 kg of confiscated ivory is destroyed at Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center on May 29 (XINHUA)

Raw tusks and carved ivory pieces as well as other ivory products went into a crusher and were ground into rubble and ash in a massive public display that destroyed 662 kg of the illegal items.

The event, called the Confiscated Ivory Destruction Ceremony, was held at the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center on May 29. It is the third time that China has destroyed confiscated ivory in public after 6.1 metric tonnes of ivory were destroyed in Dongguan, south China's Guangdong Province, and another 28 in Hong Kong in 2014.

"This event demonstrates the firm resolution of the Chinese Government in advancing ecological civility, conserving wildlife and combating illegal trade of wildlife and its products including ivory," said Zhao Shucong, Minister of the State Forestry Administration, at the ceremony.

Debate on destruction

In 1989, Kenya responded to rampant elephant poaching by burning its stockpile and became the first country to express a firm stance against illegal poaching in this way.

Many other countries followed suit. "Over the past 24 months, we have seen Belgium, Chad, the Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, France, Gabon, Kenya, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates and the United States all destroy stockpiles of illegally traded elephant ivory that has been seized and confiscated," said John Scalon, Secretary General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), in the written remarks of the ceremony.

As an international agreement between governments going into force on July 1, 1975, CITES aims at ensuring the international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

In a survey conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society based in New York City after the destruction on May 29, more than 50 percent agreed that the destruction is a right way to say no to the illegal ivory trade while about 20 percent thought it was not ideal.

"These ivory products are expensive. Why don't we sell them and use the money to protect more elephants?" said Zhou Mingguang, a college student from Communication University of China. "Thousands of elephants were killed by the poachers to get these tusks, and the government also made great efforts to get the tusks from the poachers. The destruction made all these seem to be in vain."

Though ideal in nature, Zhou's suggestion may simply be impossible. "No nation is allowed to sell seized ivory internationally according to CITES' regulations," explained Zhao. "The cost to secure the stockpiles of ivory is also high, and it is hard to prevent theft. Both cases run the risk of putting the seized goods back onto the market. For nations whose ivory stockpiles present a large cost and security burden, the destruction of ivory stockpiles lowers those costs and prevents theft."

Today, ivory that is allowed for trade in China comes from only two sources—those that were imported before the country joined the CITES in 1981 and the 62 tonnes of raw ivory stocks which China bought from four African countries in 2008, as permitted by the CITES.

In 2008, China and Japan were allowed to purchase a total of 115 tons of tusks from four countries in Africa—an effort by the CITES to try legal trade among specific countries in order to ease poaching.

But the results were not promising. "Putting more ivory into the legal supply chain would create a smokescreen for illicit trade in ivory, making effective prosecution of criminals more difficult," said Daniel Ashe, Director of Fish and Wildlife Service.

"The destruction of confiscated elephant ivory in Beijing will not in itself put an end to the illegal trade in elephant ivory," said Scanlon. "It is, however, ensuring that no one will ever profit from this contraband and, when coupled with the seizure of ivory and the prosecution and conviction of offenders, it sends a powerful message that China does not and will not tolerate this illegal trade."

Confiscated ivory on display at Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center on May 29 before being destroyed (WEI YAO)

Taking action

Yao Ming, a retired NBA star from China, visited Kenya and South Africa in 2012 in a 12-day trip with Peter Knights, Executive Director of WildAid, a non-governmental organization based in San Francisco, learning about the poaching crisis. In this fact-finding mission into the heart of Africa's wildlife conservation crisis, they witnessed the disastrous risks that the wild animals face—five elephants in Kenya were butchered and a rhino was poached in South Africa.

The poachers are becoming better and better equipped, with some of them being in the possession of machine guns, night-vision goggles and even helicopters. Countries with wild elephants can hardly compete with these forces. The situation also has threatened the local communities that coexist with the animals.

The whole trip was made into a documentary called The End of the Wild, which was aired on China Central Television with two serials. Part I focuses on elephants and ivory trade and Part II on rhino poaching.

In the documentary Yao clearly states his intent. "I believe that what people will see in those pictures, they will remember it. That's what we're here for: film this, bring it back home...and show everybody the reality."

In April 2013, Yao launched two campaigns: Say No to Ivory and Say No to Rhino Horns. The campaigns were produced in conjunction with WildAid, the African Wildlife Foundation, and Save the Elephants. Before this, Yao had already started the efforts to reduce China's demand for shark fin through his campaign with WildAid. He appeared in public service messages that have reached hundreds of millions of consumers throughout China on broadcast and satellite television, on the subway, railway stations and airports.

A survey in 2013 revealed that 85 percent of respondents in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Chengdu had stopped eating shark fin soup from 2010 to 2013. Among them, 65 percent cited public awareness campaigns as a reason.

On February 26, China announced a one-year ban on imports of African ivory carvings.

In a brief statement on its website, the State Forestry Administration said the move is to protect African elephants, and the one-year timeframe is designed to assess the effect.

According to the rules, raw elephant ivory and its products should be processed at designated places, sold at fixed shops and tracked on an individual item basis. Each legal ivory product can be tracked through a unique photo ID and is recorded in a database.

"While promoting ecological awareness in an overall manner, the Chinese Government will participate in international cooperation more actively and provide support to African elephant range countries according to our capacity. It will also make due contributions to safeguarding global ecological security," said Zhao on May 29.

Copyedited by Kieran Pringle

Comments to yuanyuan@bjreview.com

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