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Media have been buzzing over the New Year’s holiday break with news that China has declared publicly that it’s going out of the ivory business: Closing down carving factories and domestic ivory markets. Reports even go so far as to suggest that the Chinese government will help retrain ivory carvers. Ivory may finally become a relic of a painful and destructive age of commodifying wildlife, and elephants may be spared widespread regional extinction if China can implement its 2017 ban on ivory within the year, as planned.

Congratulations and thank you to China.

The Obama Administration deserves thanks, as well. It has been in discussions with the Chinese government for some time, pushing for equal measures to stop the trade in ivory. As two of the top consumers of wildlife generally and ivory specifically, action by the U.S. and China to demonstrably reduce domestic commercialization of elephant ivory could send a message to the world—most notably across Africa—that the ivory business is dead. If the ivory business is dead, then elephant poaching is no longer a lucrative enterprise. Elephants have a fighting chance. Better to kill the ivory trade than kill elephants to supply the ivory trade.

An elephant tusk, or in China, white gold. (Photo: Steve Snodgrass / Flickr)

An elephant tusk, or in China, white gold. (Photo: Steve Snodgrass / Flickr)

I used to wonder aloud why Japan insisted on pushing so hard to legalize commercial whaling and to commercialize whale meat at meetings of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). There was little appetite globally for whale meat. The government was even thought to provide whale meat from scientific whaling endeavors free to schools to help children develop a taste for it.

What a great message it would send for Japan’s diplomats to simply say, “We’re done. We’re no longer pushing to kill whales for their meat because we realize it’s unnecessary and cruel.” A massive public relations victory.

But, they did not do this. They simply, quietly, stopped submitting proposals to trade in whale meat.

China has clearly taken a different position. It has made this proclamation public and sent a message that it’s time to stop elephant poaching. We have to hope that China remains true to this commitment. We have to hope that it enforces its new ivory prohibition. If it does, elephants have a fighting chance.

But, we also must not be complacent about China’s relationship with other wild animals. This declaration against ivory consumption says nothing of stopping the demand for rhino horn, which causes the poaching of rhinos in South Africa and elsewhere. It does not close the bear factories in the country where animals are kept in cages so small they cannot turn around, perpetually “milked” for their bile and killed for their gallbladders, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine and luxury cosmetic items. It does not close the tiger farms where animals are bred and languish only until they are slaughtered for their bones, organs, skins, and teeth, which seep into the domestic market.

I believe in credit where credit is due. In the past year, the U.S. and China have committed to doing much more to curtail their domestic ivory markets. Kudos to both for keeping their promises. The eyes of the world now watch closely to see if China delivers on its promise.

Keep Wildlife in the Wild,

Adam

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