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China's stance against ivory trade hailed

By Li Lianxing | China Daily Africa | Updated: 2015-03-15 14:26

Seizures and convictions just part of panoply being used against poachers, says top official

As China has increased the number of seizures of ivory and convictions and penalties related to it, it has demonstrated its tougher stance against the illegal trade, says John Scanlon, secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

"China's commitment to fully implementing CITES was reaffirmed when I met Vice-Premier Wang Yang in Beijing earlier this year," Scanlon says.

"This recent additional voluntary measure to restrict legal imports for one year of carved ivory traded for non-commercial purposes should not be viewed in isolation but as a part of the increasingly strong measures being taken by China to stop the illegal trade."

Trade in ivory has always been a complex and multifaceted issue, he says, so in trying to understand the move it is important to put things in context.

The General Administration of Customs of China has said the number of major seizures of ivory in the country fell nearly 80 percent last year, Scanlon says, and it attributes that to improved enforcement efforts not only in China but also across the entire illegal supply chain as well as to the government's anti-corruption campaign.

However, CITES says overall the incidence last year was almost the same as in 2013, and it still exceeds the growth of the elephant population, meaning a continued decline in elephant numbers overall is likely, Scanlon says

"As such we all need to do more. This newly introduced one-year suspension demonstrates the determination and commitment to curb the illegal trade, and sends a clear and timely message to potential smugglers that the government of China does not allow the import of new ivory carvings in any circumstances and it will not tolerate this crime."

He also says that at a symposium hosted by the State Forestry Administration in China on March 3, World Wildlife Day, 17 courier companies signed a "zero tolerance" appeal and committed not to transport endangered species products.

"Again, you will need to know the context in order to appreciate the significance of this move when a lot has already been done."

CITES says evidence shows that while demand for ivory carvings in legal outlets has fallen considerably, the illegal trade continues to thrive because of the large sums of money to be made. These days the venue for such trade is as likely to be mobile apps as physical shops, and the transport of ivory carvings is most often done by courier.

The commercial trade in ivory has been prohibited since 1990, but the Conference of the Parties to CITES has still not recommended stricter domestic measures to require countries to close domestic markets. That is left to individual countries. However, where such markets exist countries are urged to ensure they have in place comprehensive internal legislative, regulatory enforcement and other measures, Scanlon says.

The three elements of source, means of transit and destination in the illegal ivory trade are all important, he says, and under CITES any country in the supply chain has been asked to prepare and implement what it calls National Ivory Action Plans.

"A lot has been done and a lot still needs to be done in improving legislation, enforcement and demand reduction. We are pleased to see that some African elephant range states are deploying considerable efforts to fight elephant poaching and control the supply of illegal elephant ivory.

"Destination and transit countries have also intensified their enforcement efforts to better control their borders, and we are seeing enhanced cooperation to combat illegal wildlife trade across the entire illegal supply chain. China has played a commendable role in the cross-continent enforcement operation known as Operation Cobra (in both phase I and phase II), which has been formally recognized by the CITES secretariat."

Scanlon says that the result of a meeting of CITES parties in 2013 was a focus on working together across the illegal supply chain rather than seeking to apportion blame.

China is a country with a huge biodiversity and can be both a source and destination state for traded protected species, he says. For example, the Tibetan antelope is found only in China but demand for shahtoosh, expensive shawls woven with the down hair of the animal, emanate almost entirely outside China. In this case, China, as the state of origin, needs to work with countries where shahtoosh are being bought to crack down on demand.

"If you are asking about the root issues behind the illegal trade, we can name quite a few, such as poverty, corruption, poor governance, weak legislation, insufficient enforcement, greed, ignorance and indifference and, perhaps most important of all, the huge financial incentive from the illegal trade," Scanlon says. "Thus to effectively combat the illegal trade, we have to make the trade high risk and low profit."

"With a long tradition in consuming various wildlife products, China is perhaps facing more and bigger challenges than any other country in the world," Scanlon says. "I was very much inspired when Vice-Premier Wang Yang told me that some traditions will need to be adjusted in order to support sustainable development. We look forward to continuing to work closely and constructively with China."

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