China deserves credit for shutting down the illegal trading in elephant ivory that has contributed in recent years to the killing of thousands of African pachyderms.
But much credit should also go to international nongovernment organizations that have championed the elephants’ cause and raised public awareness of it in China.
On Dec. 31, 2017, China, the world’s largest ivory market, banned all domestic ivory sales.
John Gruetzner, the managing director of Intercedent, a Toronto-based, Asian-focused investment advisory group, said that the Chinese government’s decision to halt the trade was partly “a response to global pressure, including pressure from the United States."
But, says Gruetzner, the decision also came as a result of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive as well as pushback from African nations.
According to Gruetzner, Chinese government indifference in recent years had permitted the carving of elephant ivory that contributed to the killing of some 33,000 African elephants a year.
Driving the demand for ivory in China have been members of a growing Chinese middle class who in the past could never have afforded to purchase carved ivory decorations. This was a luxury that was reserved in past generations for a rich minority.
Peter Knights, the CEO of WildAid, a San Francisco-based group, described China’s ban on ivory as “the greatest single step toward reducing elephant poaching.”
The announcement of the ban led almost immediately to the closing of 172 ivory-carving factories and retail shops in China.
Poaching in Kenya also went down from 390 elephants killed in 2013 to 46 reported last year, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service.
The Yao Ming Effect
In 2013, WildAid launched a campaign to reduce consumer demand for ivory that featured Yao Ming, China’s famous basketball star.
WildAid produced a documentary film on a trip that Yao Ming made to Africa.
An image of the seven-and-a half-foot tall Yao walking with a small African baby elephant following behind him has proven unforgettable.
WildAid’s campaign surveys showed that awareness levels in China and around the world had increased significantly following the 2013 campaign launch, according to John Baker, chief program officer for WildAid.
Chinese media and nearly 100 worldwide celebrities around the world, including Britain’s Prince William, have joined the cause.
Early this year, Hong Kong lawmakers voted to ban the ivory trade in a city that has been a hub for the trade for more than 150 years.
In the meantime, several governments appear to be following China’s example.
Thailand has drafted laws that would strengthen its protection of wildlife.
And on Jan. 20, Thai authorities arrested Boonchai Bach, head of a major wildlife trafficking network.
However, the outcome of a planned trial of the trafficking kingpin remains to be seen.
Taiwan is reviewing its regulations and vows to ban all domestic ivory sales effective Jan. 1, 2020. Violators will face prison sentences and heavy fines.
Vietnam has also reshaped its regulations, including heavier penalties for those caught smuggling ivory, rhino horn, and endangered wildlife into the Southeast Asian country.
On Jan. 1 this year, Vietnam amended its penal code to increase the maximum prison sentence for illegal wildlife trafficking from seven to 15 years.
Demand for rhino horn
But while China has made great progress in shutting down the ivory trade, the illegal trade in rhino horn continues to be a major problem, particularly in Vietnam.
According to The Economist magazine, demand for rhino horn leapt in Vietnam following rumors that a government minister had been cured of cancer by consuming rhino horn.
Rhino horn is believed by some Vietnamese to act as a medicine or an aphrodisiac, although there is no scientific evidence that it has such an effect or that it has any medicinal value at all.
Rhino horn is made of keratin, a protein found in human hair and fingernails. So purchasers could enjoy the same alleged benefits by chewing on their fingernails.
Until recently at least, Vietnamese officials have been noted for their lax implementation of laws that might limit the trade in rhino horn.
But in a possible sign of progress, on March 20 of this year a Vietnamese court handed a 13-month prison sentence to Nguyen Mau Chien, the suspected kingpin of a network that smuggled elephant ivory and rhino horn into Vietnam from Africa.
The Vietnamese NGO Education for Nature (ENV), however, questioned whether a 13-month sentence was sufficient punishment for the alleged leader of a major criminal network linked to the killings of hundreds of African rhinos and elephants.
Meanwhile, some ivory continues to be smuggled into Vietnam.
Witnesses say that Chinese carvers can be found in Vietnam training Vietnamese in the art of ivory carving, and Chinese tourists visiting Vietnam carry carved ivory back to China with little apparent impediment.
Mistreated in Myanmar
The mistreatment of elephants and the trafficking of ivory and other body parts in Myanmar is less well known internationally than the cases linking China with the loss of elephants in Africa.
Fortunately, some of the media in Myanmar have reported extensively on a number of cases.
And international nonprofit organizations, such as the British-based Elephant Family, are actively working to combat the trafficking.
Buddhism teaches kindness toward all living beings, and the vast majority of Burmese are Buddhists.
But the growth in demand for elephant parts used in traditional medicine in China in recent years has led to a rise in number of elephants in Myanmar being killed.
The killing of elephants in Myanmar increased sharply in 2010, with 112 wild elephants reported to have been killed, according to the country’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Conservation.
Since then the type of elephant body parts in demand has expanded from trunks to feet, skin, and penises, all of them considered to be effective, without scientific evidence, as medicines.
Elephant hide, meanwhile, has gained a reputation for treating eczema.
The skin is ground into powder and sold to cure stomach ailments. It can also be turned into prayer beads, bracelets, and pendants.
Some experts believe that the demand for elephant skin may now become an even bigger threat to the survival of elephants than the demand for tusks, and poachers in Myanmar are beginning to target any elephant, including the young.
Trafficking ban ignored
In the meantime, Myanmar’s ban on wildlife trafficking appears to be widely ignored.
The main trafficking route for the wildlife trade used to pass from Mandalay through Lashio and across into China from the Burmese town of Muse, located near the Myanmar-China border.
Some years ago, this commentator wandered around a Burmese town near Myanmar’s border with Thailand.
It was easy to find animal body parts, including tiger pelts, being sold openly there.
Though the Myanmar government later began cracking down on the wildlife trade in Muse, traffickers have adapted by seeking alternative routes to China.
South of Muse, one can find several other border crossings from Myanmar into southwest China.
Sadly, for a country that prizes albino, or white, elephants as symbols of good fortune, the torture of some elephants is reported to reach extremes.
According to a report cited by The Guardian, in 2014, wild elephants were being captured in Myanmar and mentally broken down through beatings as traffickers sought to profit from sales of elephants to tourist parks in Thailand.
Some experts believe that within a matter of a few years wild elephants could become extinct in Myanmar.
Meanwhile, in a report released in Bangkok on May 1, conservationists with the group Elephant Family urged countries to completely ban the importation of elephant skin or hide.
While China has earned praise for its ban on ivory trading, Elephant Family expressed concern that China’s State Forestry Administration appears to have issued licenses for the manufacture and sale of pharmaceutical products containing elephant skin.
According to a recent report in the Nikkei Asian Review, the Swiss-based World Wide Fund for Nature warned that “elephant skinning” may have already spread to Thailand, India, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia.
One possible solution would be a strengthening of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an agreement that has been ratified by more than 180 countries, including Thailand, India, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia.
Finally, the attention of some conservationists has now shifted to Japan, which is reported to continue to have a weakly regulated ivory trade.
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.