Combating the African Wildlife Trade in China

Ivory tusks smuggled in boxes are seen at Hong Kong Customs August 7, 2013, after they were seized from a container at Kwai Chung Container Terminal a day earlier. Through intelligence exchange with Chinese Customs, Hong Kong Customs seized a total of 1,120 ivory tusks, 13 rhino horns and five pieces of leopard skin, weighing about 2,266 kg (4982 pounds), inside a container shipped from Nigeria to Hong Kong. Bobby Yip/Reuters

Recently, Animal Planet aired a documentary entitled "Saving Africa's Giants with Yao Ming." The show, developed in conjunction with the environmental non-governmental organization WildAid, depicts the Chinese basketball player Yao Ming meeting with wildlife conservationists to discuss the future of African elephants and rhinoceroses. The documentary is part of an increased information campaign that includes other celebrities such as the Duke of Cambridge, David Beckham and Jackie Chan.

This campaign is aimed at stopping the trade of animal products, particularly ivory from elephants and rhino horn. The hope is that Chinese celebrities such as Yao Ming and Jackie Chan will appeal to and educate a vast Chinese market. China is the world's largest market for ivory and, along with Vietnam, is one of the two largest markets for rhino horn. Ivory is typically used for ornamentation while rhino horn is believed to have medicinal qualities; the demand is so great that the current price for ivory is over $2,100/kg, and rhino horn is over an astounding $65,000/kg.

The trade of ivory and rhino horn may well determine the future of Africa's elephants and rhino populations. At the present rate of poaching, the populations of both species are unsustainable. The current African elephant population is estimated between 470,000 and 690,000; poachers have killed over 100,000 elephants in the last three years. The population of rhinos in Africa is estimated to be less than 25,000; thus far in 2014, over 1,000 rhinos have been poached in South Africa alone.

Many conservationists believe that if nothing is done about this poaching epidemic, the two species may go extinct within the next twenty years.

A recent report from the Environmental Investigation Agency described the extent to which Chinese nationals, and in some cases, Chinese officials are connected to the ivory trade in Tanzania. The report cites interviews with poachers who claim to have sold ivory to officials in the Chinese Embassy. It also links a surge in the Tanzanian ivory market during an official visit from a Chinese naval task force and even claims that members of President Xi Jinping's entourage smuggled ivory out of Tanzania on the presidential plane during his visit in March 2013.

Born Free USA, a U.S.-based conservation organization, states, "Chinese illicit ivory traffickers in particular have been arrested across nearly every single African range state, and operate at nearly every point along the ivory supply chain."

A giant poster, encouraging passersby to stop using rhino horn, is seen on a street in Hanoi September 22, 2014. Kham/Reuters

Moreover, China's legal market in ivory and rhino horn often ends up providing cover for a larger illegal market. In 2008, under the auspices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe sold 101.8 tons of stockpiled legal ivory to China and Japan. In this sale China received sixty-two tons of ivory. Since then the Chinese government has annually rationed five tons of ivory for the legal market in China. But demand for ivory is much higher than the annual allotment can meet, giving rise to China's sizeable illegal market.

Still, the Chinese government is beginning to change its stance on conservation. In January 2014, the government destroyed six tons of confiscated ivory. In August, the Chinese embassy in Kenya donated $20,000 to wildlife conservancies.

Some of this change may be due to public education by Chinese stars such as Yao Ming and Jackie Chan. In addition, Beijing may be concerned about the role of poaching and the trade of ivory and rhino horn in supporting regional conflicts in Africa.

A New Scientist report claims a direct link between the illicit wildlife trade and militant groups throughout Africa, and China has extensive investments in areas that these groups operate in. For example, China is investing over $6.5 billion into mineral infrastructure in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where ivory helps fund numerous rebel factions.

The Enough Project reports that Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), has ordered his men to poach elephants for their ivory in order to fund his rebellion. Along with the LRA, the ivory trade supports militias in both Sudan and South Sudan, two countries where China has heavily invested in oil production and has a vested interest in stability.

Although these initial steps by Beijing are important, since the 2008 ivory sale, the illegal killing of elephants has increased dramatically. The Chinese government can do more. In Africa, the Chinese government could contribute greater funding and provide equipment such as reconnaissance aircraft to help support wildlife services.

An example of such a program would be the African Elephant Conservation Fund established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. At home, despite increased awareness and public campaigns aimed at ending the wildlife trade, wealthier Chinese clientele continue to purchase ivory and rhino horn at record prices. As the United States has found, any legitimate market for wildlife products provides an opportunity for criminals to exploit that market and the animals.

Because of this, Washington has instituted legal restrictions such as recent bans on the commercial elephant ivory trade. While it is doubtful that the Chinese government could entirely ban the ivory trade, it could establish stricter laws limiting the size and scale of ivory products and industry.

But in order for Yao Ming and Jackie Chan's campaign to succeed, both the government and the people must address the elephant in the room.

Allen Grane is a research associate for Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This piece first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site and on Forbes Asia.