China has asked the United Nation’s permission to import elephant ivory, and the U.N.’s Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is likely to approve the request at its meeting this week. But alarmed conservationists worry that allowing legally imported elephant tusks to circulate in China’s markets would provide cover for illegal ivory bought from poachers in Africa. They say if China becomes an approved ivory trading partner, African elephants “will be shot into extinction” [Telegraph].
The U.N. banned all international trade in elephant ivory in 1989, but later relented and allowed four African countries to occasionally sell ivory from elephants that died natural deaths or that were shot as rogues. CITES allowed a sale in 1999, but opened it only to “approved buyers” who could prove that they policed the black market in ivory. Now, however, a second auction of 108 tonnes from the same four countries is being planned, and the Chinese, who were excluded from the first sale, are seeking “approved buyer” status, claiming they are much more active now in combating illegal trading activities [The Independent].
China claims to have cracked down on the black market with a system that certifies legal ivory, and CITES agrees that the Chinese government has increased its seizures of black market ivory in recent years. However, last week it was revealed that China’s government lost track of 121 tons of elephant ivory over a dozen years that probably was sold on illegal markets, according to a previously undisclosed Chinese report to U.N. regulatory officials. The “shortfall” in ivory described in the document between 1991 and 2002 — equal to the tusks from about 11,000 dead elephants [AP] — could bolster the case against the country.
Carved ivory jewelry and trinkets are valued in Chinese culture, which leads conservationists to worry about feeding the appetite for the scarce material. “In a country of 1.3 billion people, demand for ivory from just a fraction of one per cent of the population is colossal,” said Allan Thornton of the [Environmental Investigation Agency]. “If these new legal imports go ahead, they will provide a gigantic cover for illegal ivory to be sucked in” [The Independent].
Researchers have recently figured out how to study the DNA from contraband ivory to determine where in Africa the elephants lived and died; read about it in the DISCOVER article, “Tusk Tales.”