Good news for elephants just keeps coming

Updated: 2016-06-08 14:37

By Chris Davis(

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It's beginning to seem like a big game of chess, played with very rare and priceless ivory pieces.

On June 2, just before US Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, took off for top-level bi-lateral meetings in Beijing, the federal government issued new regulations that will enact a near total ban on the domestic sale of African elephant ivory.

Just as presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama vowed to do back in September.

When it comes to lobbing a ball into an opponent's court, timing is everything.

Then Monday, with the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in full swing, Yan Xun, an official with China's State Forestry Administration, announced that Beijing will publish a timetable by the end of the year to terminate its domestic commercial trade in ivory.

Both sides had caveats. While it has been illegal for decades to import African elephant ivory for commercial use and to export raw ivory in the US, the new rule focuses largely on sales inside the US, restricting its sale across state lines.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials said, however, that once illegal ivory enters the market, it becomes nearly indistinguishable from the legal ivory used in products such as knife handles, billiard cues and furniture, so it was necessary to put more restrictions in place. The rule also prohibits the export of ivory products, with the exception of antiques.

Still, the US delegation was able to say that Obama had fulfilled his pledge to nearly ban domestic ivory sales and could challenge Xi to do the same, said US Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.

The US rule also allows for some exceptions to the ban on interstate sales — musical instruments, pieces of furniture and firearms that have less than half a pound of ivory and so long as the ivory accounts for less than half the value and volume of the object. (Anything more than 100 years old is also exempt.)

Bewilderingly, the rule also allows for the import of sport-hunted African elephant trophies, but limits the number to two per hunter annually.

Ashe explained the logic of how that helps save elephants. Hunting brings an economic value to elephants, which can be notoriously difficult neighbors, especially for subsistence farmers trying to raise crops elephants may have an appetite for.

But if that animal has a cash value, the thinking goes, locals will try to figure out a way co-exist with rather than be rid of them.

Yan said that while China applauded the US ivory ban and looked forward to hearing how its implementation goes, "China also hopes the US will further reduce or ban the trophy hunting of elephants, as well as reduce commercial activities such as auctions of ivory and ivory products, which push up prices and trigger more elephant poaching."

Various environmental and animal rights groups are largely supportive of the new rule.

"This US ban should be the catalyst for China's own ban, be the model for nations in Asia and Africa, and finally break down the world's trade in ivory," Cristian Samper of the Wildlife Conservation Society told The Associated Press last week.

Samper told China Daily on Monday that China's announcement to issue a timetable has sent a message, and ivory markets are shutting down.

"As China, the United States and several African elephant range states unite to stop the killing, stop the demand and stop the trafficking, elephants now have a fighting chance," Samper said.

Rosalind Reeve, a senior adviser to the Franz Weber and David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, said the announcement was a step in the right direction, but still "it's not enough".

"To stop the killing of elephants it needs to be followed by decisive action to shut down the global ivory trade at the CITES conference later this year. China and the US can play an important role in achieving this by backing proposals by countries in the African Elephant Coalition to list all elephants in CITES Appendix I, giving them the highest international protection, and to close all domestic ivory markets," Reeve told China Daily.

"Good news for elephants keeps coming," Iris Ho, program manager for wildlife at Humane Society International, told China Daily in an email. "The message is clear. Elephants are iconic animals that belong in the wild, not to churn out dispensable luxury goods to satisfy one's vanity or show off one's status. China has within its power to put a death knell to the deadly ivory trade."

One sobering thought. The population of African elephants in the wild is estimated at 470,000. If they were disappearing at the rate they were from 2010 to 2012 — an average of one every 15 minutes or 91 a day — since Xi and Obama agreed to the total ivory ban last September, we would be about 23,000 elephants deeper into the end game.

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