Destruction of illegal ivory tusks sets China on road to conservation

Peter Li says China's crushing of confiscated tusks can be the first step towards ending elephant poaching. Its next moves will hold the key

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 January, 2014, 9:37am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 January, 2014, 9:37am

China surprised the world with the crushing of some six tonnes of confiscated elephant tusks this month. This action deserves worldwide applause. As the world's top ivory consumer, China has received much criticism. Crushing the confiscated tusks, a gesture of official opposition to ivory trafficking, was a response to the mounting pressures from within Chinese society and the international community to stop the poaching of elephants for ivory.

And China can do more.

Ivory sale is legal in China. Despite the requirement for product identification to control origin, violations are reportedly widespread. International animal welfare groups have found evidence of fake identification cards used by both licensed and non-licensed ivory dealers.

In view of this situation, China should impose an immediate moratorium on all ivory sales. This can be the first substantial step before the policy on legal ivory sales can be reversed.

As a second step, China should launch a nationwide inspection of its ivory stock and carving businesses. The number of such businesses has increased in China since 2008 when the country purchased stockpiles of African ivory in a one-off sale sanctioned by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species. The expansion of the Chinese carving capacity was also confirmed by a 2011 investigative report.

The authorities should not only conduct an inspection, but also take action against violations involving illegal import, production and sales. They should consider closing down all ivory carving operations, and use incentives to persuade carvers to switch to synthetic materials or seek an alternative livelihood.

Third, the government should consider removing ivory ornaments and articles from its facilities. Ivory artefacts such as carved tusks are displayed in the living rooms of government-run guest houses across the country, while ivory chopsticks are used at dinners honouring distinguished guests and foreign dignitaries. An end to such practices can be part of the ongoing campaign against extravagant government spending.

Ivory carving is a refined and time-honoured traditional skill. Voices inside China against its demise are understandable. Yet, China's progress in the 20th century was achieved not by bowing to the forces of the past but by responding to the needs of new situations. Culture as a whole or in part has never been an insurmountable obstacle to human progress.

In view of the threat to the world's remaining elephant population, ivory carving as a trade is outliving its usefulness. Having succeeded in banning the use of tiger and rhino parts for traditional Chinese medicine, the Chinese authorities must do the same for ivory to shape a new national awareness of ecological protection.

Let's applaud China's latest action. The fate of the remaining elephants depends on new thinking and new policies from all countries on ivory products and ivory carving as a traditional trade.

Peter J. Li, PhD, is an associate professor of East Asian politics at the University of Houston-Downtown and a China policy specialist at the Humane Society International.