The UN is on the brink of legalising the sale of ivory to China, bringing renewed fears for the survival of the African elephant.
Succumbing to the massive Chinese demand for ivory carvings and trinkets is likely to give an enormous boost to the illegal, poaching-based trade, conservationists have warned.
They say if China becomes an approved ivory trading partner, African elephants “will be shot into extinction”.
China is expected to be given the green light by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) at a meeting in Geneva on Tuesday. The upcoming auction of 108 tonnes of ivory, which China would be able to participate in, is also likely to be given the go-ahead. In previous sales, only Japan had been allowed to take part.
An ivory ban was first imposed in 1989 after the number of African elephants fell to 625,000 from 1.3 million in 1980.
The ban was intended to be fully operative by 1997, but, led by Robert Mugabe, four south African countries – Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa – were allowed to opt out, on the basis that their elephant populations were stable or increasing, and they would only sell tusks of elephants that had died of natural causes or had been shot as rouges.
As a result, Cites allowed an auction of 50 tonnes of ivory from the four countries in 1999 for approved buyers only.
Allan Thornton, of the Environment Investigations Agency, said China’s participation in the next auction would catalyse a massive apetite for ivory. He said: “In a country of 1.3 billion people, demand for ivory from just a fraction of one per cent of the population is colossal. If these new legal imports go ahead, they will provide a gigantic cover for illegal ivory to be sucked in.”
But John Sellar, Cites’ senior anti-smuggling and fraud official, said that China had made considerable improvements to its enforcement regime against illicit trading and that it should be recommended as an official trading partner.