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Prince William’s visit to Chinese elephant sanctuary sparks debate on cruelty

The Duke of Cambridge made a passionate appeal against the illegal wildlife trade at a conservation conference in Yunan Province on the last day of his visit to China. Prince William also met one of four rescued elephants. (Video: Reuters)

Prince William, like his father before him, is a high-profile patron of wildlife charities. This week he traveled to China on a rare visit for a British royal, and, once there, he used the opportunity to focus on an issue close to his heart: the plight of the world's elephants.

It's a timely trip. Chinese demand for ivory is thought to have fueled poaching all around the world in the past few years. William hoped to use his visit to promote Chinese attempts to curb the ivory trade. “Ultimately, ending demand for ivory is down to citizens across the world,” William said at a conference on Wednesday, while on a high-profile visit to a Yunnan province elephant sanctuary.

Yet, inevitably, William's trip to China has stoked controversy. Sky News, which trailed him on the trip, discovered that the elephants in the Wild Elephant Valley sanctuary were forced to perform for tourists less than a mile from where William was visiting.

Worse still, when Sky News' Mark Stone tried to ask William whether he knew about this, the prince did not answer. He appeared either ignorant or indifferent.

A royal visit to the Wild Elephant Valley is understandable: Overall, the sanctuary has received a lot of praise for its conservation efforts. Last year, the New York Times noted that the number of Asiatic elephants in Yunnan province had doubled in two decades, largely thanks to government efforts in feeding, protection, and education around the sanctuary. It sends an important message, considering that China is the world's largest market for illicit ivory sales and Chinese demand has been linked to a dramatic decline in the elephant population in African states such as Tanzania.

However, animal rights groups frequently criticize the practice of making elephants perform: The use of performing wild animals in circuses has been a matter of political controversy in Britain, and China has made repeated legal attempts to end animal performances. In focusing on conservation efforts,  William may have accidentally sparked a different debate about cruelty.

William was the first British royal to visit China in a generation (his grandfather, Prince Philip, called Beijing "ghastly" when he visited in 1986), and the trip was closely watched by both the Chinese and the British: The two countries have a complicated history, and the future of Hong Kong remains a source of conflict.

In the end, William's visit is not getting the headlines either side wanted — though things could have been worse if the Spanish royal family had made a visit.