Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty/Nat Geo Image Collection
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After years of promoting ivory carving as part of its cultural heritage, the Chinese government is closing all its licensed carving factories and ivory retailers by the end of 2017.

Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty/Nat Geo Image Collection

Five Ways Wildlife Won in 2017

China shutting down its ivory market and Instagram cracking down on harmful selfies are some of this year’s victories over wildlife crime and exploitation.

It’s easy to feel down about the battle to protect wildlife. People are finding new reasons to poach elephants, traders have resorted to stealing animals from zoos, and huge caches of dead sharks are regularly transported around the world. But there are some bright spots. Here’s what Wildlife Watch sees as some of this year’s biggest reasons for hope.

China is shutting down its domestic ivory market. The international trade in ivory has been banned since 1990, but China, among other countries, maintained a thriving ivory trade within its borders. Conservationists say this trade has contributed to the slaughter of 30,000 African elephants each year. Making good on a 2015 pledge, however, China began shutting down its ivory carving factories and licensed retailers this year. By December 31 it’s expected that all government-sanctioned ivory facilities will be closed. A recent survey in China by the research firm Globescan— commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund and TRAFFIC, its wildlife trade monitoring arm—found that more than half of Chinese people who have bought ivory in the past no longer do and that 86 percent of people surveyed support the ban.

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The desire to show off on Instagram and other social media platforms has contributed to the rise of tourist attractions that offer the opportunity to hold wild animals, some of which are taken illegally from the wild, a National Geographic investigation found.

Instagram gets serious about wildlife selfies. It’s trendy to take a selfie cuddling a tiger cub or hugging a sloth, but most people have no idea that these animals were likely taken from their mothers too soon or snatched from the wild. Following a National Geographic investigation into harmful selfie tourism in the Amazon, Instagram implemented an alert system to inform people of the behind-the-scenes issues. Now whenever one of Instagram’s 800 million users search for a wide range of wildlife-related hashtags, such as #slothselfie, they’ll see a pop-up that reads, in part, “You are searching for a hashtag that may be associated with posts that encourage harmful behavior to animals or the environment” and that gives users the option to click to learn more.

THE FIGHT TO STOP ILLEGAL BEAR TRAFFICKING IN SOUTHEAST ASIA

While Vietnam is closing its bear bile farms, the number of farmed bears in Laos has increased significantly in recent years. An organization called Free the Bears is trying to end bear farming there.

Vietnam pledges to end bear bile farming. In July the government of Vietnam announced that about a thousand bears kept in captivity for bile extraction would be moved to sanctuaries. In bear bile “farming,” sun bears and moon bears are kept hooked up to machines that extract a medicinal substance from their gallbladders in a process critics say is inhumane and unsustainable. The move follows a 2015 agreement in which the Vietnamese Medical Association pledged that by 2020 traditional practitioners would stop prescribing bear bile to treat ailments. Synthetic bear bile is widely available.

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Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus staged its last show in May 2017, though its elephants had been retired earlier.

The tide is turning against circus performances by wild animals. Welfare problems affecting circus animals from elephants to lions to monkeys are well documented. Performing unnatural activities in front of screaming audiences under bright lights is stressful for the animals, which retain their wild instincts despite being born in captivity. Long days of travel in confined spaces can affect their health, and many instances of abuse have been documented. Animal welfare advocates celebrated this year when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus staged its last show. Ringling’s elephants retired last year, and now its 13 big cats have also been sent to a new home—a circus in Germany. Despite the cats’ move, which is controversial because it appears to take advantage of what many see as a loophole in the Endangered Species Act, advocates see Ringling’s closure as a sign that what the public wants in a circus is changing. Ringling may have survived if it focused on human-only performances à la Cirque de Soleil, said Jan Creamer, of Animal Defenders International, who helps rescue abused circus animals.

U.S. President Donald Trump thrust the plight of elephants into the spotlight. In November the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would lift the ban on hunters importing elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia after determining that fees from hunting in those countries would benefit elephant conservation. Public outrage from both sides of the aisle was swift and loud. Even Trump joined in, criticizing his administration’s decision and calling trophy hunting a “horror show.” The result? Even people not following conservation issues have become aware of the poaching crisis and the battle to conserve Africa’s elephants. The Fish and Wildlife Service is now reevaluating the decision to lift the ban, per Trump’s request.

Read more stories about wildlife crime and exploitation on National Geographic’s Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.