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Here’s Why It’s A Mistake to Discount China’s Ivory Crush

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 8, 2014

Ivory going into the crush Monday morning in Guangzhou (Photo: PLAVESKI/SIPA/REX)

Ivory going into the crusher Monday morning in Guangzhou (Photo: PLAVESKI/SIPA/REX)

Among many Western environmentalists, the response to China’s public destruction of confiscated ivory (first reported here and on TakePart this past Saturday) has ranged from skepticism to derision

Here’s Joe Walston, Asia Executive Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society on why that’s misguided:

China destroyed a portion of its massive stockpile of confiscated ivory on Monday – a first for the country.

The action has left the international conservation community struggling with its own conscience. Whether to praise a monumental shift in approach to conservation by the world’s biggest consumer of the world’s wildlife or condemn the event as posture, devoid of substance and commitment? Before judging, it’s worth examining the situation in a little more detail.

It was probably no coincidence that China crushed 6.1 tonnes when, just two months earlier, the US crushed a slightly smaller amount. In the US’s case it was almost its entire stockpile, while in China’s case it is a fraction: 17 tonnes were confiscated between 2010 and 2013 alone. Which raises the obvious question, why only the six tonnes? If China was serious about destroying stocks, then why not burn it all? To some this is enough to dismiss the whole event out of hand.

But here’s the point. So much of what is written in foreign blogs and by us western conservationists fails to recognise the internal struggles in China on this issue.

The importance of the crush is not its direct impact on the market price of ivory (zero) or the safety of wild elephants in Africa tomorrow (negligible); its importance lies in it being the manifestation of a very real debate within the Chinese government on this issue.

To dismiss the event without regard for this silent but significant struggle is too big a risk to take. This crush happened in the face of considerable resistance in some quarters of the Chinese Government, while there are influential proponents of the crush who would like to see all ivory automatically destroyed after prosecution, with China agreeing not to buy future ivory from any legal sales.

The biggest fear is that crush contrarians within the Chinese government will use international criticism to prove their point: that China will just continue to be vilified whatever it does and it should therefore disregard the global movement against ivory. Similarly, government proponents of further, more influential actions against the ivory trade don’t necessarily need our support, but they would like us not to be opponents to their cause. Hence, the move needs to be welcomed if only to embolden those within the Chinese government who are pushing for more substantive action on this issue.

This is not to say we should be apologists or sycophantic supporters of half-measures. However, I for one welcome this event with a cautious but encouraging message of congratulations with hopes that China takes further steps towards shutting down this insidious trade.

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