Trinkets over Tuskers

An orphaned elephant calf mourns his dead mother. Photo by David Sheldrick Wildlife TrustAt its recent meeting in Geneva, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) unfortunately voted to designate China as an ivory trading partner and gave final approval for the sale of nearly 240,000 pounds of ivory (obtained from an estimated 11,000 dead elephants) from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.

China joins Japan, which was designated as a trading partner in 2006, as the only two countries allowed to purchase and legally import stockpiled ivory from the four southern African countries for the manufacture of sculptures, chopsticks, and other trinkets. AWI and other conservationists condemn the decision. Allowing legal trade will facilitate the laundering of illegal ivory and that flooding China with ivory trinkets will only increase the demand for these products—leading to further decimation of the world's remaining elephant populations.

In 1989, CITES banned the international trade in all ivory to try to stem the loss of Africa's elephants, whose populations had plummeted from 1.3 million to 600,000 by poachers attempting to satiate the increasing demand for ivory. In 1997, the aforementioned African countries received permission from CITES to conduct a one-off sale of their ivory stockpiles. This sale, according to many experts, led to a resurgence of elephant poaching, with over 200,000 elephants slaughtered in the past decade.

China is the principal destination for illegal ivory, fueled by the expanding affluence of its middle class. In recent years, Chinese authorities have seized large amounts of illegal ivory, but such confiscations are only a fraction of what is shipped to the country. When voting to give China its much coveted trading designation, CITES sadly ignored the country's reputation as a source for illegal ivory, an alleged ivory for arms deal with Zimbabwe exposed only months ago, and its recent revelation that it lost track of 121 tons of ivory that was likely sold illegally.

Though several countries expressed their opposition to the proposal, the United States was silent during the debate. Ultimately, the CITES Standing Committee approved China's designation.