BEIJING — China has pledged to end the processing and sale of ivory, a move that — if fulfilled — would be a major victory in the battle to end the slaughter of tens of thousands of African elephants by poachers every year. But the country has not said how quickly it will act, and a top Chinese official called on the United States in an interview this week to also tighten its rules on ivory trading.
Wildlife experts said China’s recent announcement represented a sea change in official attitudes and called the prospect of an end to the legal trade in ivory in this country the greatest step that can be taken to reduce poaching. But they added that much would depend on when China acts, and how firmly.
China’s legal trade in ivory products — largely based on a stockpile imported in 2009 — provides the cover for a vast illegal trade that fuels poaching in Africa and involves global crime syndicates, experts say.
In an interview, a top Chinese wildlife official said his country was still deciding how far and how quickly it would act, but added that China could not be expected to act alone. Meng Xianlin, China’s top representative to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) said that other countries — including the United States — also need to toughen their regulations.
“Some people say, ‘China should take the leadership, you first, you stop everything and other countries will follow,’ ” he said. “I understand, but I think we should negotiate with other countries to push these procedures gradually.”
On May 29, China destroyed nearly 1,500 pounds of tusks and ivory carvings in a public ceremony in Beijing, after similar events in southern China and Hong Kong last year.
In a speech, Zhao Shucong, minister in charge of the State Forestry Administration, surprised assembled diplomats and environmentalists by announcing that China would “strictly control the ivory trade and processing, until eventually halting commercial processing and the sale of ivory and its products.”
The remarks prompted intense discussions within the wildlife conservation community, with enthusiasm mixed with disbelief. China had long argued that ivory carving was part of its ancient cultural heritage. Was it serious about closing its network of carving workshops, advocates wondered, or would it call a halt only when its existing stockpile was depleted?
Meng said there was a commitment at the highest levels of the Chinese government to build an “ecological civilization,” citing one of the many slogans of President Xi Jinping’s government. Now the principle has been established, he said, and it is just a matter of pushing the procedure.
“We participated in several rounds of discussion with our minister,” he said, referring to Zhao. “His attitude is very firm; his point is very clear. It is not simply a sentence; China will really put this into practice.”
Wildlife groups have been campaigning for years to hear those words. A ban on the legal ivory trade in China would make it much easier to stamp out the illegal trade, they say.
“Ending the legal sales of ivory is the greatest single step that can be taken to reduce elephant poaching in Africa, and we hope it can happen as soon as possible,” said Peter Knights of WildAid, a San Francisco-based group that encourages Chinese people not to consume endangered wildlife products. “We applaud the Chinese government for its leadership.”
Cristian Samper, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, said Meng’s remarks should be “broadcast around the world and should put all poachers on notice that their bloody market is no longer viable.”
“There is clearly a senior level of commitment from the Chinese government to stop the ivory industry in China,” he said. “Now, Chinese government agencies responsible for regulating and managing the ivory issue will need to develop a plan and a timeline to implement this decision. And people from all nations need to stop buying ivory.”
China imported 62 tons of ivory in 2008 at a time when elephant numbers were relatively healthy and limited international trade was allowed. It has been releasing that stockpile gradually to more than 30 licensed workshops to be carved into ivory products but refuses to say how much of the stockpile remains.
Meanwhile, poor enforcement of the licensing system allows the widespread sale of products made from poached ivory, fueling the slaughter. The African elephant population has fallen from more than 1 million in 1989 to about half a million now, with more than 20,000 animals estimated to have been killed for their tusks in each of the past two years.
Although stricter enforcement has helped reduce poaching and populations are growing in some nations, Tanzania and Mozambique have each lost half or more of their elephants in the past five years. There have also been big declines in forest elephant populations in central Africa.
Meng said the government is selling five tons of ivory a year to carving workshops but would “gradually” reduce that annual quota to zero. He said a total ban on ivory processing and sales could come “very quickly” but then added: “One year, two years, three years, four years, 10 years. Is that quick or not quick compared to the history of the world?”
There is a precedent: Rhinoceros horn had been used in traditional Chinese medicine, but its use was banned in China in 1993, and it is hard to find here now.
Attitudes are also changing, with demand for shark fin soup sharply lower here in recent years. Meng said his son, and the younger generation in general, no longer wants to eat endangered wildlife products. WildAid says that 95 percent of people surveyed in China’s three largest cities now support a ban on ivory trading.
But Meng said China should not be the only country to act.
The United States is the second-largest market globally for illegal wildlife products after China, and it still allows trade in ivory acquired before a worldwide ban in 1989. Trophy hunters, Meng pointed out, are also allowed to import ivory into the United States for non-commercial use; Europeans still trade in ivory acquired in colonial times, while some African countries encourage trophy hunting for income.
In 2014, President Obama ordered a tightening of the rules on ivory trading, while New York and New Jersey have both passed laws outlawing it. But the administration has failed to reach its ultimate goal of a national ban. The National Rifle Association’s support for trophy hunting and for trade in guns with ivory-inlaid stocks remains a barrier, environmentalists say.
“China’s announcement puts the ball back in our court,” Peter LaFontaine, a campaigns officer at the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Washington, wrote in a blog post. “The U.S. must lead by example to show we will not be an active player in the devastation and eventual extinction of such a majestic and intelligent species.
“It’s up to us to change the laws — and actually enforce them — before it’s too late.”
Xu Jing and Liu Liu contributed to this report.