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China fights against illicit wildlife trade

By Li Lianxing | | Updated: 2013-03-04 19:42

China has made significant progress and joined international campaigns to fight against the illicit trade in wildlife products, including ivory and rhino horn, according to a top wildlife conservation specialist.

"China has been serious about strengthening its regulations and law enforcement on the illegal wildlife products trade," said John Scanlon, secretary-general of the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), adding that among 177 partner countries of CITES, China is one of the most actively engaged.

"When we look at China, we must recognize the great efforts it has made," he said. "It is not the Chinese government that is involved in the illicit trade, but some individual Chinese are acting illegally. We have to draw a distinction clearly."

Efforts from different authorities are functioning well, led by the Ministry of Forestry, with a coordinated work body liaising with all the agencies involved across China. Enforcement has been significantly improved and there has been improved coordination with different disciplines, including police, customs and forest inspectors, according to Scanlon.

But there is also an urgent demand for the Chinese government to raise public awareness regarding wildlife protection, he said.

"The issue of communicating with the Chinese people about the consumption of wildlife products is not just in China. We have ivory, rhino horns and other illicit products delivered to different destinations," Scanlon said. "But how do you raise the awareness? I think the best way is working with Chinese people, because they know the culture, they know the best way to communicate. So that’s why we use our own Chinese staff to directly work with the Chinese authorities to say how we can work with China to help raise awareness."

He said a large number of the illicit trades are based on the lack of understanding of the implications of the trade items, and therefore it is also very important to work with international organizations such as the United Nations Environmental Programme, which has the capacity to reach large numbers of Chinese people.

China is not, and cannot work alone on this issue. Scanlon said China has participated in many international campaigns. For example, over the last three years China has been very actively involved in working with CITES to host three meetings within China, including a very important meeting on training officials from Asia and Africa in technical control delivery.

"China has recently invested $200,000 in the African Elephant Fund based in Nairobi, Kenya, which is a multi-donor technical trust for the implementation of an African Elephant Action Plan, to further protect the species in Africa," he said.

Scanlon said on the ground there are a significant number of exchanges between China and Africa in terms of wildlife protection enforcement.

"I think what we need to recognize is that domestically China has taken significant actions to protect the species and the same can be also said of Africa, countries like South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia, which are taking very strong action to protect their national heritage — the wild life," he added.

He said in some African countries weak governance means they have difficulty in enforcing wildlife conservation because of human conflict and the rampant illicit wildlife trade.

"I think there are a lot of good examples in other parts of the world, which take good and sound actions to protect wild animals," he said. "For instance in the US, the government has very strong boarder control and they use some advanced techniques that have been used in other fields to protect wildlife."

He said one of the problems with wildlife protection is that in some countries the issue itself is not treated seriously.

Another difficulty regarding illicit wildlife product control, especially the ivory trade, is there is still a legal market and legal trade, according to Scanlon.

"Unlike the trade in rhino horns, which is all illegal, ivory is a little bit different, because it was traded until 1999 when there was a trade ban imposed," he said, adding that although traditional Chinese medicine had a record of using rhino horns as an ingredient, the Chinese government prohibited its use nearly two decades ago.

"In China and other countries, there is legally sold ivory with a certificate system," he said. "But it’s still different from the US, because the US has now banned all ivory trade, unless it’s ancient or antique ivory."

He said in China new ivories are coming through new sales, purchased from the international markets, which added to difficulties in distinguishing legally imported ivory and that which has been laundered in.

"That's why we are working with the Chinese government to ensure the system and regulations are fully rigorous, making sure the legal trade is not well laundered ivory which has been taken illegally," he said. "When there is a legal trade, there is an opportunity for laundering, and that's why we should have very tight national legal controls."

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