In a surprising step, China this week became the latest in a growing number of countries to publicly destroy large quantities of ivory to bring attention to the global trade in illegal ivory. From any angle, China's move has important and positive implications for the fight against an illegal ivory trade that is killing tens of thousands of African elephants every year.
Still, not all ivory destruction ceremonies are alike, and when it comes to the illegal ivory trade, China is not just any country.
"Wildlife trafficking has become a serious problem, and illegal trade of ivory and wildlife products is increasing," China's State Forestry Administration declared in a statement to the United Nations explaining its decision to destroy 6.1 tons of its ivory this week. The destruction was conducted "for the purpose of raising public awareness, and demonstrating China's resolve to combat wildlife trafficking."
China's destruction ceremony comes on the heels of similar acts by the United States (six tons) and the Philippines (five tons), both of which crushed their entire national ivory stocks last year. Together these three events represent the first time in history that non-African countries have publicly destroyed their ivory.
Not All Ivory Destructions Are Alike
The destruction of illegal ivory has become perhaps the most recognizable and powerful symbolic act in wildlife conservation, starting in 1989 when Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi, flanked by paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, set fire to 12 tons of ivory.
Orange flames rising from that pile of tusks shocked the world and inspired parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to enact a global ban on international trade in ivory later that year.
What made Kenya's action so significant was the sacrifice that the burning of its ivory represented: Burning ivory equaled burning cash, especially in a world before the ivory ban.
After the global ban on the ivory trade went into effect, elephant populations that had been decimated by poachers began to recover. The ban held for ten years until 1999, when CITES allowed a "one-time" experimental sale of 50 tons of ivory to Japan. The ivory trade ban took a second hit in 2008 when CITES allowed a second sale of 102 tons of ivory to Japan and China.
By all accounts, that second sale was a disaster. The Chinese economy was simply too hot, and global law enforcement too weak, to prevent the 2008 sale from opening the floodgates to a massive illegal ivory trade between Africa and China, resulting in the current bloodbath for African elephants.
In the wake of a poaching and trafficking crisis, countries have again turned to ivory destruction ceremonies to bring attention to the problem. In 2011 Kenya hosted a burn of 5.5 tons of ivory belonging to a number of African nations (but did not burn any of its own stock). Gabon burned its ivory in 2012.
Symbolic Acts Backed Up With Action
Importantly, destroying ivory stocks has been a symbolic act accompanied in each case by parallel action. Kenya's 1989 ivory burn was not only a symbolic act for the world, it was also a tangible act of defiance against Zimbabwe and a handful of other pro-ivory-trade southern African countries that opposed an ivory ban. Likewise, Gabon's burn said "no" to proposals to open Africa to ivory trading that were then actively being floated.
The Philippines ivory destruction ceremony was accompanied by an announcement of the launch of a new wildlife trafficking enforcement unit and an acknowledgment that the Philippines could not protect its ivory warehouse, which had been frequently robbed.
The United States, too, had more to say. The ivory destruction ceremony in Denver put a physical face on President Obama's new cabinet-level Wildlife Trafficking Task Force, formed in part to recognize that wildlife trafficking is a national security issue, especially when it comes to ivory. Officials used the ivory destruction ceremony to float the idea of a nationwide ban on domestic ivory sales in the United States, not just on imports or exports. That idea is now gaining momentum in Washington and around the country.
The question is, what is the parallel message from China? Unlike any of these other countries, which all oppose international trade in ivory, China supports it. In fact, China is the world's leading ivory consumer, legal and illegal, and it is home to the world's biggest ivory-carving factory.
What Does This Mean for China?
Certainly, publicity from its ivory crush will help the Chinese government inform its public that not all ivory in China is legal. A survey conducted as part of the documentary Battle for the Elephants indicated that nearly 60 percent of Chinese believe that making ivory "illegal to purchase under any circumstances" under "the strong recommendation of a government leader" would be the most effective way to stop ivory trading.
So the crush has implications in terms of public awareness and demand reduction.
Yet China's wildlife department, the State Forestry Administration, has a history of cooking the books when it comes to ivory policy. As I reported in Blood Ivory, in order to gain CITES approval to buy ivory in 2008, China made many small ivory seizures to improve its law enforcement rating even though it made no significant inroads against crime.
Likewise, China and Japan joined forces to manipulate the 2008 ivory auction prices and, rather than undercut the black market with cheap ivory as many hoped the sale would do, those in the government ivory industry raised prices, inviting more illegal trade, not less.
China's ivory crush is to be commended on a level having nothing to do with wildlife directly. As I discovered during my three-year investigation of the international ivory trade for National Geographic, one of the primary uses of the very valuable sculptures carved in China's legal ivory factories is as bribes to curry favor with superiors in government or to influence business clients. IFAW's Grace Ge Gabriel has pointed out that Chinese President Xi Jinping's austerity program has targeted corruption at all levels of government, with the consequence of reducing sales of luxury items, including shark fin soup and, potentially, ivory.
So far, the world has been unable to police the killing of elephants that has exploded after the legal ivory market was opened in China. Chinese wildlife department officials have repeatedly denied that China's ivory industry is responsible for Africa's poaching problem. As recently as last year, China's CITES delegate Wan Ziming called upon delegates to allow sales to China of not only ivory from elephants that died of natural causes, but also of ivory seized in police actions.
Destroying such ivory this week suggests a possible change in thinking among wildlife department officials. Or, better still, maybe it suggests that more than China's wildlife department is now listening.