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Active market for ivory can't be shuttered soon enough

China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-01-04 10:57

China says it plans to shut down its ivory trade by the end of 2017 to curb the mass slaughter of African elephants.

The Chinese government will end the processing and selling of ivory and ivory products by the end of March as it phases out the legal trade, according to the statement released on Dec 30.

China had previously announced it planned to shut down the commercial trade, which conservationists described as significant because China's vast, increasingly affluent consumer market drives much of the elephant-poaching across Africa.

"This is a game-changer for Africa's elephants," said Aili Kang, the Asia director for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

Africa's elephants, maybe. But news out of Borneo shows just how low poachers will go when it comes to feeding the insidious appetite for white gold.

On New Year's Eve, wildlife officials in Sabah - one of the two East Malaysian states on Borneo - found the butchered remains of a beloved male pygmy elephant. He had been nicknamed Saber, because his tusks curved downward, a look reminiscent of the oversized canines of the extinct saber-toothed tiger, the Guardian reports.

From the looks of the remains, officials estimate Saber had been slaughtered as long ago as November. And the discovery was made just days after wildlife officials had found the butchered remains of another male elephant within a mile of Saber's carcass.

Elephant poaching had never been considered an issue on the island - only male Bornean pygmy elephants have tusks, and the ivory is considered brittle - but things may be changing.

Danau Girang Field Centre Director Benoit Goossens told News Asia that from the looks of both sites, a cottage industry was sprouting up in the area.

"We are ready to provide all necessary information to the investigators and to the police. I believe that this is the work of a professional hunter and trader," Goossens said.

"On the day China banned ivory trade, we get two of our precious elephants murdered for their ivory. Our elephants are already threatened by habitat loss," he said. "If we add poaching for ivory, I don't give many years for the species to become extinct."

Dr Pakeeyaraj Nagalingam, a vet with the wildlife department who had taken part in rescuing Saber from the palm oil plantation where he had been discovered and relocating him to the safe haven of a preserve, said, "There are no words to express our sadness."

He told reporters that there seemed to be no safe place for elephants in Sabah anymore.

Saber had also been fitted with a radio collar, which was found with his remains.

The pygmy elephants of Borneo are about one-fifth the size of their mighty African cousins, and genetic analysis suggests they have been evolving separately for 300,000 years.

They are also severely endangered with an estimated fewer than 2,000 living in the habitat being aggressively encroached upon by industrial-scale palm oil plantations, which view the diminutive pachyderms as pests.

Borneo has already lost its rhino, Goossens said. "The elephant will be next. Those crimes should not go unpunished. Let's not lose our jewels, the next generation will not forgive us."

As time is running out for all elephants, it remains to be seen what kind of positive effect China's announcement will have in the year ahead.

China, which has supported an ivory-carving industry as part of its cultural heritage, said carvers will be encouraged to change their activities and work, for example, in the restoration of artifacts for museums. More efforts will be made to stop the illegal trade, the statement said.

Iris Ho, program manager for wildlife at Humane Society International, said, "China's groundbreaking announcement illustrates that political will, backed by concrete policy prescriptions, is the single best solution to save elephants. China's bold action contrasts sharply with the inaction of other global significant ivory markets, such as Japan or the Europe Union.

"China's new policy, hopefully, is the beginning of the end of the ivory trade and a wake-up call to those refusing to shut down the ivory trade in their jurisdictions," Ho added.

The number of Africa's savannah elephants dropped by about 30 percent from 2007 to 2014, to 352,000, because of poaching, according to a study published this year. Forest elephants, which are more difficult to count, are also under severe threat.

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