The announcement Friday that the United States and China will work together to enact “nearly complete bans” on the import and export of ivory represents the most significant step yet in efforts to shut down an industry that has fueled the illegal hunting of elephants, putting some species at risk.
The agreement between U.S. President Barack Obama and China President Xi Jinping means that China, the world’s largest consumer of ivory, is bolstering its promise last May to crack down on its domestic ivory trade—a claim that left many skeptical.
It’s an industry that has been driven largely by China’s booming middle class, in which some people covet ivory as a status symbol. Wildlife conservation groups say that Asia, and China in particular, are the key cogs in an industry that they say has helped to encourage the slaughter of some 30,000 African elephants a year.
This is the first time that the presidents of the United States and China have made a specific, shared commitment to protect wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States said in a statement.
There is already a near-total ban in the United States on commercial ivory, and new restrictions put in place last year tightened things further. Commercial imports of African elephant ivory, even antiques, were banned, and the restrictions limited the number and types of hunting trophies that could be brought into the country. Individual states, most recently California, have enacted or proposed bills to further restrict ivory sales.
Thursday’s agreement, announced by the White House, is especially significant for China because the Chinese government itself controls—and for years essentially encouraged—the ivory trade in that country.
In 1989, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), the international body that sets wildlife trade policy, banned the global ivory trade. And when an experiment allowed Japan to buy a 55 tons of ivory legally in 1999, the resulting rise in smuggling caused China to deem the Japan experiment a failure.
But just a few years later, China began lobbying to be allowed to do the same—to buy a limited amount of ivory to sell, in a tightly controlled market, domestically. China lobbied hard, and in 2008, CITES granted its request.
That year, China legally bought 73 tons of ivory from Africa. About that time, it also built the world’s largest ivory-carving factory and began opening shops to sell ivory. The Chinese government even added ivory carving to its official register of Intangible Cultural Heritage, in an attempt to further legitimize the industry.
National Geographic went inside some of China’s carving factories in 2012 and revealed how China’s actions were promoting the legal and illegal ivory trade. Instead of keeping prices for ivory low, the government raised them, making ivory more profitable to poachers.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s plan to assign legally carved ivory products photo IDs backfired—the photos are so small that an ID used to identify a legal piece of ivory can easily be attached to an illegal one to legitimize it. The photos are so small that it’s hard to tell whether the piece in the photo is the same one being sold.
China’s internal ivory control systems have failed. While 79 percent of Chinese people surveyed by National Geographic Society and GlobeScan said they’d support a total ban on ivory, the survey also found that 36 percent of those surveyed in China wanted to buy ivory and could afford it, while another 20 percent wanted to buy it but couldn’t afford it. (In the United States, 13 percent said they wanted to buy ivory and could afford it, while 22 said they wanted it but couldn’t afford it. The survey also found that a higher percentage of Americans who could afford it had no interest in buying ivory—24 percent, compared with 12 percent in China.)
The illegal ivory trade has been linked to terrorist organizations and organized crime, and this high-level commitment is a sign that wildlife trafficking has been elevated “into the diplomatic discourse among the world’s most important global political leaders,” the Humane Society statement said.
According to the announcement, the United States and China will restrict the import of ivory as hunting trophies, as well as work to restrict the domestic ivory trade. They also said they will expand cooperation in training, information-sharing, public education and law enforcement.
The agreement “should have a profound effect” on elephant poaching, said Peter Knights, the executive director of WildAid, a nonprofit that fights wildlife trafficking. “The fight will carry on, but this is probably the largest single step that could have been taken.”
Knights added that the announcement puts pressure on ivory-loving Hong Kong, where the legal commercial trade often provides cover for those seeking to launder illegal ivory.
This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.