Cause for celebration? China closing its legal domestic market will remove the cover smugglers need to operate.
Cause for celebration? China closing its legal domestic market will remove the cover smugglers need to operate.

China said it will ban all commercial activity in ivory by the end of 2017, a move that will close the world’s biggest market for the product and deal a blow to poachers and trafficking gangs in the US$20 billion illicit global trade in endangered species.

The government said it will begin phasing out registered legal ivory processors and traders by March 31, 2017, and shut down its legal ivory trade completely by December 31, fulfilling a promise made by President Xi Jinping in 2015.

“It’s a game changer and could be the pivotal turning point that brings elephants back from the brink of extinction,” said Elly Pepper, deputy director of wildlife trade for US-based environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council. “Now, other countries, including the UK, must follow China’s lead and close their ivory markets.”

Demand for elephant ivory has skyrocketed in recent years, leading to the poaching of approximately 35,000 elephants each year for their tusks. African savanna elephants have declined by 30 percent in the past seven years and if current poaching rates continue African forest elephants could be extinct in less than a decade.

The international commercial trade in ivory has been banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species since 1989. China has maintained a legal ivory market, with registered carvers supplied with raw ivory from stockpiles. However, poached ivory finds its way into the legal market because it is hard to determine age and provenance of stocks, the NRDC said.

Read: War on elephant poachers

Over the past two years, China has taken major steps to end its domestic ivory market. In February 2015, it placed a one-year ban on imports of all carved ivory items. A month later, Xi promised to shut the domestic market. In October 2015, China placed a one-year ban on imports of African elephant trophies. In March 2016, it extended the ban on carved items and hunting trophies, and in June China promised a timeline for its ivory ban by the end of 2016.

After the market closes, the government will help ivory carvers and others employed in the sector find other livelihoods. It will also strengthen the management of legally possessed ivory products and ramp up enforcement and education to combat the illegal ivory trade.

“China is moving from being the main problem to the main solution,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the founder of Save the Elephants, according to the New York Times. The announcement was “the most astonishing and wonderful piece of news,” the paper cited him saying.

Of course, China doesn’t lack for laws regulating all manner of social and environmental issues. The future for elephants and many other species is whether the country’s officials and courts can or want to enforce them.

And there are other buyers lining up: Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand (with a combined population of about 300 million people) are already big markets. As more Asian nations get richer, the race to educate consumers and break the chain of tradition grows more urgent.

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