The survival of elephants has never looked so gloomy. Last Friday, Hong Kong customs announced the interception of one of the biggest consignments of illegal ivory in recent years. Altogether, 1,148 tusks were uncovered. Disturbingly, many of the tusks were reportedly taken from young elephants. Can African elephants survive the current madness of illegal poaching?
Worldwide concern is warranted. Hong Kong has been made one of the gateways for shipping contraband into the mainland and other places. Last October, Hong Kong intercepted the biggest consignment of ivory, weighing more than 3.7 tonnes.
These seizures only intensify the suspicion that individuals or businesses in mainland China are behind this assault on elephants. And critics are pressing China to do more to stop the carnage. The belief that China has been implicated in 40 per cent of ivory smuggling cases in recent years is telling evidence that demand in China is driving the slaughter on the African continent.
What are the factors underlying the Chinese demand for ivory? Economics has been singled out as an explanation. True. China's swelling middle class is sweeping across the world for luxury goods that include ivory. Wealth alone, however, cannot explain the seemingly insatiable Chinese appetite.
China's outdated wildlife protection law offers a clue. The law prioritises wildlife utilisation over conservation, and ivory artefacts are prized exhibits decorating guest houses run by the Chinese government. Ivory chopsticks are still used at official catering events. And, China was a major buyer of the "one-off" sale of ivory stock sanctioned by the Convention of the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) in 2008.
Ivory artefacts are legally sold under a state permit system. Yet, according to an investigation, the system has been violated by some traders for illegal sales.
What can the Chinese government do to help the global fight? Humane Society International, a US-based animal protection organisation, has written to China's General Administration of Customs and other agencies, and recommended the following:
Launch an independent audit of China's legal ivory trade system;
encourage Chinese customs to strengthen inspection of imports from Africa and penalise businesses knowingly mislabelling banned imports;
increase co-ordination with customs offices of African nations where elephants are found;
encourage ivory carving businesses to use synthetic materials;
increase the manpower and resources for forestry police and the customs to better enforce wildlife protection laws and policies; and
- consider destroying confiscated stocks to show China's commitment to combat illegal ivory trade.
Hong Kong customs needs to follow up on its investigation and co-ordinate with its African counterparts and other international enforcement networks to prosecute the syndicates behind the imports. China must be part of the global effort to save the elephants - before it is too late.
Dr Peter J. Li is an associate professor of East Asian politics at the University of Houston-Downtown. Iris Ho is wildlife campaign manager at Humane Society InternationalMore on this: