China is to carry out a countrywide audit of stockpiled ivory in an attempt to stamp out the illegal trade that is threatening the survival of African elephants.
On its completion next December, a nationwide registration scheme is planned, according to a paper submitted to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) meeting in Santiago, Chile, last week.
Beijing's move comes after the convention approved the one-off sale of a 60-tonne stockpile of elephant tusks worth US$5 million (HK$39 million) by three southern African nations - Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.
Wildlife experts condemned the move and said any relaxation of the rules would result in an increase in illegal smuggling and the death of more elephants.
A one-off legal sale of ivory to Japan in 1997 has been blamed for increasing market demand in east Asia, mostly in Japan and Thailand and on the mainland.
Beijing's decision to conduct an audit came after the Sunday Morning Post reported last week that Guangzhou had become the centre for its illicit ivory trade, with hundreds of elephant products openly sold despite legitimate supplies drying up seven years ago. A wide range of products can easily be bought in stores, hotels and markets.
Jo Hastie, an elephant campaigner for the Environmental Investigation Agency, has welcomed the audit.
The paper - a preliminary review on the management of trade in elephant products in China - was prepared by Wan Ziming, Meng Xianlin and Aster Zhang. It said Cites' management authority would carry out the study, along with several departments, including the State Forestry Administration, the Ministry of Public Security and the State General Administration of Customs.
'China has input huge resources to combat the illegal trade in elephants over the past few years,' the paper said.
Since 1996, 200 ivory-smuggling cases had been detected, and about 30,000kg of ivory and elephant products seized, it said.
'The status of illicit domestic trade in ivory and its products is not clear, but it exists in some big cities. The reason we are conducting the survey on stockpiled ivory and detecting ivory-related cases is to check the status of stockpiled products in 1990, evaluate illicit domestic trade and take enforcement action against it,' the paper said.
Efforts to control the ivory trade and raise public awareness include:
Establishing several wildlife forensic laboratories to identify ivory;
Educating diplomats, aid personnel and tourists about Chinese and foreign wildlife trade regulations;
Holding workshops on confiscated ivory, and a decision that all seizures should be handed to the convention's management authority or the forestry administration for storage and disposal;
Notifying several departments of the status of stockpiled ivory, sealed tiger bone and rhinoceros horn, and the status of detected ivory, tiger bone and rhino horn cases. Forestry administration at the local level would be asked to check stockpiled items and report the findings to provincial departments, and;
Collecting ivory by police and Customs, who would report their seizures to the forestry administration, which would then forward them to the management authority.