China finally takes a step to stop the slaughter of elephants

INTERNATIONAL COMMERCIAL trade in ivory was banned in 1989, but that did not stop the slaughter of elephants and the poaching of their tusks. In Africa, more than 100,000 elephants were killed in the past decade. Driving the illicit trade was demand from China, so the country’s decision to shut down its domestic market — the world’s largest — is a significant development that hopefully will help prevent extinction of this magnificent animal.

Environmentalists and wildlife advocates characterized China’s Dec. 30 announcement that it will ban all commerce in ivory by the end of 2017 as a game-changer. Chinese President Xi Jinping had made a joint pledge with President Obama in September 2015 to enact “nearly complete bans” on the import and export of ivory, but China’s lack of action, as the United States finalized regulations last June, had become a matter of concern. With the African elephant population in drastic decline — the most recent Great Elephant Census attributed a drop of about 30 percent from 2007 to 2014 to poaching — the need for urgency was clear.

“Over recent years, many global entities have taken a crack at trying to solve this problem,” said Patrick Bergin, chief executive of African Wildlife Foundation, reeling off a list that included Interpol, the United Nations, the World Bank, the Clinton Global Initiative and the European Union. But, he said, China, as the world’s largest consumer of ivory, always held the key. Ivory is a status symbol in China, and the country’s booming economy helped fuel the illicit trade.

There has been speculation about what finally prompted action from Chinese leaders, who long had argued that conservationists were exaggerating the country’s role. Whether it bowed to mounting international pressure; sought to curry favor with African countries, where it hopes to expand its influence; hoped to usurp the United States as a leader on environmental issues; or just wanted to do the right thing matters less than the result. What’s important is that there be effective enforcement in shutting down the market. The government’s announcement of a relatively fast timetable is an encouraging sign. Hopefully that will spur Hong Kong, also a significant marketplace for ivory, to speed its five-year plan to implement a ban, and prompt other countries, notably Thailand and the Philippines, to rethink whether they want to continue to play a role in the destruction of this species.

Elephants face other threats, notably a loss of habitat in the face of increasing development and demographic changes. But stopping the senseless slaughter so that there can be more trinkets in the world is an essential — and long-overdue — step.

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