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Will China’s new ban on the ivory trade help or hurt?

18 8 16

AT the end of 2017, China announced it had closed down the domestic trade in ivory. Conservation establishment players did victory laps declaring the move a major step in curtailing elephant poaching. The news website China.org.cn featured an opinion piece titled “More efforts are needed to stamp out the ivory trade” that essentially proclaimed that China had now done its bit and it was up to the international community to follow suit.

Whenever I am at home and receiving my daily Google updates on wildlife-trade issues, I find there are now enough of these messages out there to give me the feeling that maybe something is indeed happening. That the world is finally taking the problems associated with the wildlife trade seriously. There are tons of NGO-generated press releases touting tales of successful enforcement actions. Then I am off on one of my usual gigs, packing the obligatory bag to do some filming and investigative work in West Africa, the Middle East or Southeast Asia — which generally results in a serious reality check.

Reality bites particularly hard when it comes to China’s role in the global illegal wildlife trade and the control measures that the country supposedly has in place to curb it. The Asian juggernaut, by all accounts, leads the world in its demand for products from high-profile protected species. Yet most of these positive-sounding news items feature what are obviously opportunistic rather than systematically effective enforcement activities.

SEE ALSO: Poachers are skinning elephants in Burma due to Chinese demand for skin

When it comes to elephants, ivory is the key wildlife product being discussed. But China is now also the largest importer of live African and Asian pachyderms (the latter being illegal to trade “for primarily commercial purposes” under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Elephant skin has also now become a major trading product.

On my trips, I regularly visit Special Economic Zones and Special Regions fully controlled by Chinese nationals in places like Laos and Myanmar, where I witness tons of illegal wildlife products for sale. The key clientele in all these places are Chinese visitors who take most of the wildlife products they acquire back into China.

After checking into a flight from Hanoi, Vietnam, to Guangzhou, China, about three years ago, I filmed a couple in the departure hall as the wife retrieved from her purse a collection of ivory items to admire and try on. I followed her through customs in China. No sign of any control. No sign of any sniffer dogs like those that have now appeared at several airports in Africa to detect CITES-listed wildlife products illegally going out on flights to known demand countries.

Trade shifts online, underground, across borders

Ever since China announced in 2015 that it would eventually close its legal domestic ivory trade, there has been a constant stream of news stories quoting conservationists saying this would be a game changer for elephants. It has been a fantastic public relations bandwagon for China, with a litany of NGOs and even filmmakers taking credit for encouraging Chinese policymakers to take this step.

But I have yet to see any writer compare the new ban with what happened in 1993, when China outlawed the domestic trade in rhino horn to similar accolades. The poaching pressure on rhinos has drastically increased in the last decade, with a lot of trafficking into China taking place via Vietnam and Laos. Why should things be different in the ivory business?

My local contacts in some of the tourist spots, like Luang Prabang in northern Laos, are telling me that Chinese nationals are buying up or leasing souvenir shops that flaunt ivory and other wildlife products. These shops usually provide free Wi-Fi and offer a link to their virtual shops on WeChat, the Chinese version of WhatsApp. That way, customers can show bargain items to their folks back home, who can then place additional orders on their phones.

A Chinese-owned shop in Laos advertising ivory products.........

© Asian Correspondent