Anyone who knows me is well aware that I absolutely love elephants. Years before I made AnElephantInTheWoods.com I ventured into website-making and created https://sites.google.com/site/indianelephants/, which is far from my best work. However, it does show that elephants have been on my mind for a long time.

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For 23 fun facts on elephants, read my post from World Elephant Day here!

Now, elephant lovers from around the world can rejoice! China has announced that it will ban its ivory trade, which will be a huge step in shutting down the largest ivory market in the world.

The rise in poaching in recent years. Image via Africa Geographic Magazine.
The rise in poaching in recent years. Image via Africa Geographic Magazine.

Wildlife researchers estimate that 50 percent to 70 percent of all smuggled elephant ivory — maybe even more — ends up in China, where there are countless ivory workshops and showrooms.

This ban couldn’t have come at a better time for elephants. A recent survey of the population of African elephants found that about 27,000 are being killed every year, and that the population is declining by about 8% each year. Additionally, even “though 84% of elephants occurred in protected areas, many protected areas had carcass ratios that indicated high levels of elephant mortality.” Here’s how we got to this moment, which elephant defenders are calling “a game changer for elephant conservation.”

"Ivory statues stand in front of one of around a dozen pyres of ivory, in Nairobi National Park, Kenya Thursday, April 28, 2016. The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has stacked 105 tons of ivory consisting of 16,000 tusks, and 1 ton of rhino horn, from stockpiles around the country, in preparation for it to be torched on Saturday to encourage global efforts to help stop the poaching of elephants and rhinos. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)"
“Ivory statues stand in front of one of around a dozen pyres of ivory, in Nairobi National Park, Kenya Thursday, April 28, 2016. The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has stacked 105 tons of ivory consisting of 16,000 tusks, and 1 ton of rhino horn, from stockpiles around the country, in preparation for it to be torched on Saturday to encourage global efforts to help stop the poaching of elephants and rhinos. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)”

Throughout history, China has been a huge hub for the ivory trade. The word for ivory in Chinese, 象牙, actually means “elephant tooth,” although many ivory traders simply refer to it as “white gold” due to the prices it can fetch. Its significance in Chinese history is undeniable, but so is the fact that the elephants that supply it are dwindling.

Carved ivory. Image via Beijing Tourism.
Carved ivory. Image via Beijing Tourism.

Popular lore tells of emperors who believed ivory chopsticks would change color upon contact with poisoned food. In Chinese medicine, ivory powder is said to purge toxins from the body and give a luminous complexion. As part of its public relations effort to legitimize the trade, the government in 2006 added ivory carving to its official Intangible Cultural Heritage register, along with traditional opera, kung fu and acupuncture.

The price of one tusk. Image via New Scientist.
The price of one tusk. Image via New Scientist.

Ivory’s impact has been felt on a global scale, where its annual value is estimated to be around $10 billion. It has been a key source of funding for rebel groups in Central Africa. Some have even compared it to conflict minerals, with ivory now being “Africa’s new conflict resource.”

A Kenya Wildlife Service officer oversees ivory burning. Image via Getty Images.
A Kenya Wildlife Service officer oversees ivory burning. Image via Getty Images.

National Geographic has an incredibly useful tool that lets you see how many elephants remain in key countries in an article here.

I previously noted how 2016 has been a great year for elephants because “the mean estimate of the Proportion of Illegally Killed Elephants (PIKE) dropped below 5 percent for first time since 2009, according to a report prepared for the 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP17) of CITES to be held in Johannesburg in September.” This latest announcement suggests that 2016 might be the best year for elephants in recent years.

Dating back to at least 2015, the United States and China agreed to “enact nearly complete bans on ivory import and export, including significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies, and to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.”

"After news of African forest elephants taking over 90 years for its population to recover due to slow breeding, its cousin, Africa's savanna elephants, are dwindling in numbers. In the picture, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Royal Patron of Tusk and President of United For Wildlife, assists rangers in northern Kenya to move 'Matt', a tranquilised bull elephant, whilst a wildlife vet fits his new satellite tracking collar to monitor and protect him from poachers. (Photo : Chris Jackson/Getty Images)"
“After news of African forest elephants taking over 90 years for its population to recover due to slow breeding, its cousin, Africa’s savanna elephants, are dwindling in numbers. In the picture, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Royal Patron of Tusk and President of United For Wildlife, assists rangers in northern Kenya to move ‘Matt’, a tranquilised bull elephant, whilst a wildlife vet fits his new satellite tracking collar to monitor and protect him from poachers.
(Photo : Chris Jackson/Getty Images)”

A few months before Barack Obama met with Xi Jinping to announce these steps against the ivory trade he took a trip to Kenya, where he announced “rule changes [that] would amount to a near total ban on the commercial trade of African elephant ivory in the United States.” The United States has been working as “part of a global effort to combat poaching…has increased its efforts to reduce the market for illegal ivory in the past year, with a pledge to use American intelligence agencies to track and target those who benefit from wildlife trafficking, a trade estimated at $20 billion a year.” A few month before this announcement by China, the United States announced the effective closure of its ivory market, “largely clos[ing] down its own ivory market by banning trade at the federal level and in several states [although] experts said it still needs to do more in terms of enforcement.”

This summer, China committed to “publish a timetable by the end of 2016 to halt its domestic commercial trade of ivory.” Its decision to announce this ban is likely to due years of criticism from the international community, and also from some of China’s biggest stars. Former basketball player Yao Ming used his voice to argue against poaching of elephants and rhinos for their ivory. Ming had previously criticized the Chinese government for its policies on shark killings (shark fin soup is considered by some to be a delicacy in China).

Yao Ming overlooks an elephant carcass in Kenya. Image via New York Times.
Yao Ming overlooks an elephant carcass in Kenya. Image via New York Times.

China’s ban’s impact will of course depend on how strictly it is enforced, but the initial plans seem to be encouraging to advocates of the ban.

In the first step, a designated group of legal ivory processing factories and businesses will be forced to close by March 31. The Ministry of Culture will assist in the transition of legal ivory into use in museums and other cultural sites, as well as help workers in the industry, including master carvers, find related jobs.

The transition away from jobs requiring ivory will be key, because if people who formerly worked with it find jobs in other sectors, there will be less of an incentive for them to return to working with ivory. China will also not confiscate ivory that is already owned, and will supervise its sales whenever it is sold at auction.

After the Asian arowana was placed on the Endangered Species List, its illegal value skyrocketed, in what might bode poorly for this new ban. Read about this $300,000 fish here!

This Chinese ban is certainly welcome news for elephant fans around the world, but its implementation will certainly need to be monitored closely. If you told 10-year-old me that I would be writing for a site called An Elephant In The Woods and that both the US and China would take massive steps to curb elephant poaching, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. And yet here we are. This is definitely a positive note to close 2016 out on!

For more profiles in nature, from the St. Augustine Monster to the Battle of the Cats to a Steve Irwin $100 bill to a deadly octopus to how 20% of fish eaten are mislabeled to a fish that weighs more than a pickup truck to a $300,000 fish to a fish named after Obama to a truly living “living fossil,” read here!

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