A major new study provides disturbing proof that the crisis facing African elephants is even worse than people imagined, driven by the exploding trade in illegal ivory in China.
The study, written by ivory market researchers Lucy Vigne and Esmond Martin, and funded by Save the Elephants (STE) and the Aspinall Foundation, found that skyrocketing demand for ivory in China has sparked a booming trade in smuggled ivory. There are ever greater numbers of items on sale, carving factories, and legal and illegal retail outlets.
The expanding legal trade provides a perfect cover for laundering vast quantities of illegal ivory. The Chinese government is taking some measures to control the illegal ivory market, but it’s not doing enough. The situation is currently out of control.
The study concludes: “without China’s leadership in ending demand for ivory Africa’s elephants could disappear from the wild within a generation.”
This conclusion seems self evident. In fact this point has been made time and again. For example, an article published in Time magazine almost exactly a year ago concluded that if the Chinese authorities don’t act fast, we could be heading toward a future without elephants.
In the run-up to London summit on wildlife crime in February, I wrote “all eyes are on China” and in the aftermath suggested that we are losing to battle to save wildlife because “western leaders … don’t have the guts to take on China”.
What’s depressing is that so little has changed, despite the impassioned rhetoric of world leaders, high profile campaigns celebrities and British royals, and the sterling efforts of campaigning organisations like STE. To make change happen I suggest we need to challenge the notion of “China’s leadership” on two counts.
First, although Chinese action is essential to save Africa’s elephants, the leadership should come from Africa. While China may face a “conservation challenge” as stated in the title of the report, it is Africa’s elephants that are facing extinction.
Unfortunately, despite growing civil society engagement with wildlife issues, so far few African leaders have demonstrated they are serious about taking action. One of them, Botswana’s Environment Minister Tshekedi Khama, recently asked me, despairingly: “Where is the pride of Africa? Why aren’t we setting the agenda here? It is we who have the elephants.”
A recent Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) report made some highly publicised claims about involvement of visiting Chinese officials in ivory smuggling out of Tanzania. These claims were furiously – and unconvincingly – denied by Chinese authorities. What got less publicity was the much longer part of the EIA report analysing ingrained institutional corruption in Tanzania and the complicity of Tanzanian authorities in the illegal ivory trade.
Africans will not have the political or moral authority to make demands on the Chinese until we put our own house in order.
Secondly we have to stop thinking about “China” as a monolith – a single actor in the unfolding drama.
China is a highly complex society. The dynamic of ivory trade is driven by interactions among a wide range of actors. Political leaders, government officials, organised criminals, consumers and civil society organisations all contribute to the illegal ivory trade and attempts to control it in different ways. We need to understand their roles and target our actions and campaigns accordingly.
For example, was the ivory spending spree by the Chinese delegation in Tanzania sanctioned ‘from above’ or was it a case of lower-level officials getting out of control? In the first case, a high level diplomatic protest might be in order. But in the second case it might be more effective to engage with Chinese civil society organizations already combating corrupts officials at home.
Consumers who purchase ivory are also driven by different motives. The report suggests that “investors banking on continued rises in the price of ivory appear to be a significant factor in the recent boom, rather than buyers of traditional ivory carvings”.
This is important information. Buyers of handicrafts might well be swayed by awareness raising campaigns, but law enforcement is likely to be a more effective strategy against unscrupulous investors – and of course also against the organised crime networks that supply them.
Let’s be clear: China is also a highly centralised society. If the Chinese nation is contributing to the ongoing extinction of Africa’s elephants – as it is – the Chinese government deserves the lion’s share of the blame.
But, here again, we need to understand China better in order to know the best way to the influence Chinese authorities. China’s leaders are sensitive to pressure from foreign governments— and the hard evidence of reports by organizations like STE and EIA. It was notable that the first online report I found of the press conference in Nairobi today to launch the report was a long article in the South China Morning Post.
But Chinese authorities are also sensitive to pressure from an increasing confident civil society inside China. A recent visit to China by two young African activists, Christopher Kiarie of WildlifeDirect and Resson Kantai of STE, provided encouraging evidence of the potential for linkages between African and Chinese civil society organizations, to work together to increase pressure on the Chinese government to change.
A joined-up strategy led by Africans at all levels of society offers the best chance of success in these desperate times.
Main Photo: Ben Curtis/AP)(