China's Ivory Trade: Reeducating the Masses
   2012-08-24 17:06:49      Web Editor: Fuyu

By Stuart Wiggin

China's favorite son, Yao Ming, former NBA star and recent Olympic commentator on Chinese television, has been carrying out a Kenyan expedition in conjunction with the charities Save the Elephants and WildAid. His trip intends to raise awareness levels back in China concerning poaching and alter the mindset of those who are inadvertently contributing towards the extinction of Africa's wildlife through the purchase of ivory products. The selection of Yao, therefore, as the face of the WildAid campaign is a calculated attempt to command the attention of Chinese citizens, especially the new "middle class", who have a penchant for purchasing expensive and rare symbols which define their status.

Yao Ming embarked on his trip on August 10, and has so far witnessed a number of amazing but also heartbreaking scenes. Yao has already paid a trip to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy where four of the world's remaining seven northern white rhinos remain under 24-hour protection. Upon coming up-close with these magnificent and rare beasts, Yao stated on his personal blog, "They have been totally decimated in the wild, due to poaching fueled by demand for rhino horn for traditional medicinal uses in Asia". Yao faced further saddening scenes when the team with which he was traveling stumbled upon an elephant's carcass; killed as the result of poaching. Though the images presented on his personal blog said more than any words could, Yao added, "I'm told the main destination for illegal ivory is China."

The practice of ivory carving is highly regarded within Chinese culture. In 2008, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) allowed the Chinese government to buy ivory from non-poached stockpiles in order to stem illegal ivory sales and in turn prevent poaching. However, the move led to an increased number of government licensed ivory sales outlets springing up across the country at a time when people continued to become more affluent. The legal trade of ivory stimulated demand for ivory products and led to the laundering of illegal ivory consignments via the legal trade system.

Yao Ming's highly publicized trip takes place following the sixty-second meeting of the standing committee at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, held in Geneva during the last week of July, during which a damning assessment of China's ivory trade was given. In a report on the Interpretation and Implementation of the Convention, focusing on elephant conservation, illegal killing and the ivory trade, the CITES secretariat noted "a worrying trend" in the form of a "significant deterioration in China's domestic ivory trade control system." The report went on to state that, "the increased level of consumer demand in China is mirrored by a steady increase in the wholesale price paid by carvers and ivory processors for illegal raw ivory in that country, which roughly doubled between 2002 and 2004 and again between 2004 and 2010 to around USD 750 per kg."

The danger of this increased demand for ivory lies in the fact that "China's domestic ivory trade control system has also reportedly faltered considerably since the country was a CITES-approved participant in the one-off ivory sale held in four southern African countries in late 2008." The report refers to the circumvention of policy previously agreed upon by CITES and the Chinese government, noting that legal retailers have been selling ivory products without the display and issuance of product identification certificates, creating the possibility for the laundering of illegal ivory products.

As part of a report entitled "The Ivory Dynasty: A report of the soaring demand for elephant and mammoth ivory in Southern China", undertaken by Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne, ivory carving factories and shops in Guangzhou and Fuzhou were surveyed in January of this year. The survey revealed that the volume of ivory goods on sale in Guangzhou had doubled since 2004. Of the 6,437 items on sale, 61 percent were being traded illegally. As a result China has been called upon by CITES to reassess its internal ivory trade system "to ensure that it is preventing the laundering of elephant ivory from illegal sources."

In 2009, Wan Ziming, Director of Enforcement and Training at the endangered species office of the State Forestry Administration stated that the high domestic price of ivory in China may have been contributing to increased instances of smuggling. The recent CITES meeting has confirmed that pricing is not the only factor contributing to the growth of the illegal market; a breakdown in the regulatory system of the legal market has in fact allowed illegal sales to flourish. Nonetheless, the Chinese government has stated that it is committed to resolving this problem despite its failure on the regulatory front.

The message of Yao's trip is not focused upon assigning blame for the continuation of the illegal ivory trade at China's door, but rather that high-profile education campaigns in China, which receives some 54 percent of the world's illegal ivory supplies according to data on ivory seizures from the Elephant Trade Information System, can alter the mindset of Chinese people. After visiting Samburu Village, a community in which support for education and other community projects flows directly from tourism conservation fees, Yao stated, "In China, we rightly value education very highly. For most parents, our greatest aspiration is the best possible education for our children. I'm sure if people realized that buying illegal ivory undermined education in Africa, they wouldn't buy it anymore."

This is the second high-profile campaign which Yao has been associated with, aimed at educating China's nouveau riche; the first being his attempt to create a conservation movement based on protecting sharks and denouncing the use of shark fin in "upper class" Chinese banquets. Yet only last month, at a meeting in the capital on the "sustainable use of shark" held by the China Aquatic Products Processing and Marketing Association, it was claimed that refusing to consume shark fin is a tremendous waste of resources, and that shark fishing maintains the population balance within the sea. These claims have been widely criticized by web users, though it is clear that the industry is still trying to justify and defend its existence.

The need in China for celebrity endorsed campaigns like Yao's is undeniable. Industry regulation has failed in terms of China's legal ivory trade, while people's demand and desire for status symbols have become greater. Yao's campaign is designed to tug at the heartstrings of those Chinese people who have purchased ivory products in the past, in the hope that they will have a crisis of conscience. Measuring its success will be hard but it is a welcome addition to an industry which ultimately leads to the illegal hunting and killing of elephants in the wild.


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