Last weekend's sixth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC)—a high-level trade summit held in Johannesburg, South Africa—marks the first time that the illegal trade in ivory was high on the agenda at a FOCAC conference. Ivory poaching and trafficking has not only decimated the continent’s elephants, according to a working group, but has also “threatened the economic livelihood of rural communities and posed serious security challenges.”
The conference focused mainly on strengthening dialogue and collaboration on economic development between China and 50 African countries that have established diplomatic ties with the Asian giant.
Speaking at a wildlife sanctuary in Zimbabwe before the conference, China’s President Xi Jinping said that "China has earnestly fulfilled the international obligations and actively participated in international cooperation in wildlife protection."
But until recently, Chinese politicians and business leaders have shown little concern about the ivory scourge. For years, in fact, Beijing encouraged the ivory trade. Then, in September, Presidents Xi and Obama pledged a new effort to end it. For its part, Xi said, China would take “significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.”
With some 30,000 African elephants being killed for their tusks each year, and the continent-wide population estimated at only 400,000, some experts are wondering if that commitment will be enough.
As the biggest foreign investor on the continent—$101 billion in 2014—China has an estimated million-plus citizens spread throughout the continent. Among them are criminal syndicates that move large quantities of tusks into Asian markets.
China’s surging middle class has created an unprecedented demand for carved ivory—figurines, trinkets, bracelets—regarded as a symbol of success and upward mobility. Since 2008, the price of ivory has increased almost tenfold from an average of $71 per pound ($157 per kilo) to $681 per pound ($1,500 per kilo).
Ecologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of the Kenya-based research and conservation organization Save the Elephants, says that “without China’s leadership in ending demand for ivory, Africa’s elephants could disappear from the wild within a generation.”
In the run-up to the conference, statements by some Chinese politicians and business leaders reinforced the country’s newfound commitment. At the University of Witwatersrand, Yuxiao Zhou, China’s former ambassador to Zambia, highlighted the government’s growing concern about the country’s poor image in respect of the illegal wildlife trade. “We realize that things must be done quickly,” he said. “Big, bold steps must be taken in wildlife protection.”
The session at “Wits,” as the university is known, was held specifically to facilitate a China-Africa partnership on wildlife conservation between business and conservation NGOs. The participants signed a declaration for combating illegal wildlife trade that was presented to the FOCAC secretariat.
“This is the first time we’ve addressed wildlife issues in a forum like this,” said Si Hai, chairman of the Southern Africa Shanghai Industrial and Commercial Liaison Association. “We’re willing to participate and lend support to efforts to stop illegal trade—if we can help, we will certainly do so.”
Meanwhile another group, the China-Africa Wildlife Conservation Council—comprised of Chinese and African civil society leaders, conservation NGOs, and celebrities—met for a pe-FOCAC field visit and roundtable discussion in Kruger National Park. It was facilitated by the African Wildlife Foundation and the Aspen Institute and included Chinese film star Wang Baoqiang and Tanzanian singer-songwriter, Alikiba.
The council released a statement supporting the governments of China and the African states in their active commitment to conserve Africa’s wildlife, recommending that China strengthen its collaboration with African countries.
Actions Speak Louder than Words
Andrea Crosta, cofounder of the Elephant Action League, a U.S.-based advocacy group, told the delegation at Wits, “We’re starting to see the effects of the Chinese government’s new stance on the illegal wildlife trade.”
Crosta noted that “for the first time ever, ivory dealers in Asia are getting cagey—they’re nervous because they sense a change in mood.” At a recent anti-ivory protest, Kenyan Maasai campaigner Daniel Ole Sambu and other protesters noticed marked aggression and distress from ivory store owners.
But others are concerned that China’s promises won’t be translated into timely action. Louise Scholtz, manager of the policy futures unit at the World Wildlife Fund, South Africa, said before the conference, “From an environmental perspective, we’re very worried that the focus on such concerns will be placed on the back burner.”
The September U.S.-China deal “needs to be implemented right now,” agreed Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
The FOCAC summit produced two documents: the Johannesburg Declaration, and the corresponding Action Plan. Speaking in closing, South African President Jacob Zuma said the documents outlined a way forward for the next three years.
“The announcements and agreements made here must translate to concrete action and outcomes,” he said. “Implementation mechanisms should ensure that we see swift action and that effective monitoring and evaluation is undertaken.”
There was no mention of wildlife in the declaration, but the Action Plan promises that China "will strengthen cooperation in the area of wildlife protection, help African countries to improve their protection capabilities, build the capacity of environmental rangers, explore the possibility of cooperating on wildlife demonstration projects and jointly fight against the illegal trade of fauna and flora products, especially addressing endangered species poached on the African continent, in particular elephant and rhino."
Nevertheless, the action plan contains neither specific measures to be adopted nor a timetable for China and Africa to implement the broad commitments.
Adam Cruise is a senior contributor for Conservation Action Trust, which promotes widespread and impartial investigation and reporting on conservation and environmental issues. Follow him on Twitter.