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China's temporary ban on ivory imports to be "ineffective"

China announces a temporary ban on ivory imports but only an outright ban on domestic sales can curb poaching and protect African elephants, say campaigners

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(Image by Huang Hongxiang) 

China’s announcement late last week that it will impose a temporary ban on imports of items made from carved ivory is unlikely to have a big impact on poaching, environmental groups have said.

On February 26 China’s State Forestry Administration said it would not process import requests for ivory items, effective immediately, which the agency said was motivated by the need to protect African elephants and suppress demand for animal tusks.
 
The announcement came ahead of this week’s visit to China by the UK’s Prince William, second in line to the British throne, and a strong critic of the ivory trade.
 
Conservation groups said that while the announcement was a welcome first step, it would do little to curb the trade in ivory within China.
 
“The (SFA’s) ‘temporary ban’ does not apply to the massive domestic legal ivory market in China which continues to perpetuate the desirability of and illegal trade in ivory, stimulates demand and provides an avenue for laundering illegal ivory,” said Mary Rice of the Environmental Investigation Agency. She adds: “In effect, the announcement is largely a window-dressing exercise,” she added.
 
The EIA says the ban won’t impact around 180 licensed ivory-processing and retail facilities in China, which combined with a thriving illegal trade, makes the country a major player in a global trade responsible for the death of around 35,000 African elephants a year, threatening their extinction.
 
China is the world’s largest consumer of ivory, prompting a sharp rise in the prices of raw tusks and finished ivory, although other countries such as the US are also big markets. 
 
Smuggling of ivory into China is another reason why the SFA's move is likely to be ineffective unless bans are enforced much more rigorously, campaigners told chinadialogue last year.
 
Trade in ivory is already forbidden by international treaties.  "The ivory trade is generally forbidden since the 1989 CITES treaty. The trade is already illegal,” said Magnus Fiskesjo, a visiting professor of anthropology who lectures on the ivory trade at New York University’s Chinese campus in Shanghai.
 
CITES, which is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is a multilateral treaty aimed at protecting endangered plants and animals.
 
In 1989 the convention agreed an international ban on commercial trade in ivory, and for a time was successful in curbing demand for ivory until the mid-2000’s when an upsurge in Chinese demand for tusks encouraged a resurgence in poaching. And CITES doesn’t apply to the booming domestic trade in ivory.
 
African ivory from recent animal kills is being sold in hundreds of outlets across China, prompting campaigns for a total ban by celebrities including Yao Ming, a former Chinese basketball player who was a star in the US NBA league.  
 
Last month, UK broadcaster David Attenborough – whose nature documentaries are world-famous - was one of several signatories of an open letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping, calling for a complete ban on ivory trade in China. 

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