As China continues to deepen its socio-economic partnership with Africa, it is also beginning to recognize the key role it can play in combating the illegal wildlife trade that is both destroying biodiversity and fuelling civil unrest in the continent. Chinese authorities made their first arrest of a Chinese wildlife smuggler overseas this February, as part of a transnational anti-trafficking operation codenamed 'Cobra 2'. The sting, which saw the extradition of an alleged ivory kingpin and Shandong native named Xue from Kenya, involved 28 countries and concluded with over 400 arrests and more than 350 seizures of illegal goods.
China's leading role in organizing and funding the operation is an encouraging signal that it is ready to strengthen its cross-border cooperation with other nations in order to confront the powerful criminal networks driving the $19 billion illicit wildlife trade. Wildlife poaching in Africa has surged in recent years, with the forest elephant population in central Africa witnessing a decline of 65 percent between 2002 and 2013. In China, soaring demand for ivory has driven prices for the so-called 'white gold' up to $2,000 per kg and the country now accounts for over 70 percent of the world's ivory market.
The legal ivory trade in China is regulated by the country's State Forestry Administration which authorizes a limited number of ivory-carving companies and dealers to sell ivory products made prior to 1989. However, due to the difficulty of dating ivory, the illegal trade continues to flourish on the sidelines; in 2011, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found that 101 out of 158 ivory-selling shops and carving factories in Beijing, Shanghai, Fuzhou and Guangzhou, were either unlicensed, or selling smuggled ivory. China has strengthened its anti-trafficking policing and confiscated over 17 tonnes of illegal stockpiled ivory in the past three years. One of the main areas of concern is smuggling between Kenya, home to the world's largest ivory export port, and the key trans-shipment point of Hong Kong. Last year, an IFAW study revealed that 95 percent of illegal wildlife smugglers arrested in Kenya's Nairobi Airport were Chinese and the majority were headed towards Hong Kong.
The Cobra 2 operation uncovered that the Chinese national Xue had been paying couriers up to $1,600 per smuggling to carry ivory into China, while his collaborator Zheng was found to have been carrying nearly 9kg of ivory beads in his luggage alone. Due to the difficulty of coordinating cross-border policing, the vast majority of such smugglers remain undetected. Those identified are mostly able to avoid sentencing; a 2013 Wildlife Direct study indicated that only 4 percent of convicted wildlife offenders in Kenya went to jail between 2008 and mid-2013.
As Grace Ge Gabriel, China director for IFAW emphasizes, "Wildlife crime has always been a high profit, low-risk endeavor, and that is why it has always attracted syndicates. Kenya has just recently improved its wildlife protection act, making penalties much stronger. In the past, the ivory smugglers caught basically just got a slap on the wrist, a fine of $300 for instance and a confiscation of the smuggled ivory."
Following the success of Cobra 2, China endeavors to strengthen its interdiction and law enforcement capabilities to crack down on the trafficking that is undermining African institutions. Ivory poaching funds militia groups including the Lord's Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony and a recent study by the Elephant Action League estimates that illicit ivory sales pay for up to 40 percent of the monthly expenses of the Somali Al-Qaeeda-backed Al-Shabaab militant group. The ivory poached in Kenya is said to be paid for at the Kenyan-Somali borders by Al-Shabaab officers before being exported to China.
Li (Aster) Zhang, director of Programs of Conservation International in China and an associate professor at Beijing Normal University observed that poaching is closely related to social instability in Africa:
"According to our analysis of over 40 elephant sites in Africa, carried out under the Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants programme, where we compared the proportion of elephant poaching on the ground, together with other economic and social indicators, we found that poaching in the field is correlated with indicators of corruption, indicators of poverty and indication of demand from consumer countries. So it is not simply a matter of providing funding to support anti-poaching in the field in African countries. China and other countries should consider this carefully."
In January, China destroyed a six-tonne illegal ivory stockpile in Guangzhou in a notable symbolic move which marked its first public act of this kind. Meanwhile, the sheer size of the stockpiles that have also been destroyed by the US in November and France in February, point to one of the most immediate concerns for all the countries along the wildlife trade route, the corruption that is facilitating the smuggling of these illicit goods at massive scales.
The Cobra 2 operation has demonstrated the effectiveness of a more open approach to strategic information sharing between governments working together to deal with the masterminds behind the trade. The landmark signing of the London Declaration in February further saw 46 nations including China and African States pledge to strengthen cross-border cooperation whilst treating the illegal wildlife trade as a serious crime within the UN Convention Against Organized Crime.
Dr. Jan Schmidt, Asia-Pacific Senior Wildlife and Veterinary Advisor to the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) stressed that the promises made in the agreement must be upheld to enable progress:
"Sharing data on intelligence regarding wildlife trade and enforcement activities that have been carried out in other countries is quite crucial in order to respond to these illegal trade activities. Multilateral agreements may help with avoiding bureaucratic delay. We need fast action; if governments are slow in sharing data we may miss out on opportunities to catch those behind it."
Of course, another major part of China's battle against the illegal wildlife trade is curbing the demand fuelling the trafficking. National communication campaigns fronted by Chinese celebrities such as Jackie Chan, Li Bingbing and Yao Ming in partnership with Wild Aid against both rhino horn and elephant ivory purchasing have brought the topic to the forefront of public attention in recent months. Li Zhang is hopeful about the potential effectiveness of such campaigns in raising public awareness and emphasizes that much of the current appetite for ivory in China stems from "new business" activities which only emerged after 2008, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), allowed China and Japan to make a one-off purchase of illegal ivory stockpiles. Zhang emphasizes that China's ivory market had decreased significantly in the early 2000s prior to this point due to lack of access to resources. He asserts that the country's current ivory market is primarily enabled by a few "businessmen" and "is not centered on traditional culture like ten or twenty years ago, it is a new business… there is no reason for us to rely on this kind of new market because it's not really related to our daily lives".
The move by the Chinese government-owned retail chain Chinese Arts & Crafts to suspend its sale of elephant ivory products in mid-March is a sign that China is ready to further stigmatize the consumption of illicit wildlife products on a wider scale. In addition to the achievements the country has made in its seizures and collaborative efforts so far, continued international coordination and systematic enforcement of anti-trafficking laws will be key to tackling the global security threat posed by the billion-dollar industry in the long term.