Next year might technically be the year of the rooster on the Chinese zodiac. But we prefer to think of it as the year of the elephant.
In a huge move, China has just announced that it will ban all processing and trade of ivory by the end of 2017, with the first factories scheduled to shut down in just three months time, by the end of March.
"China will gradually stop the processing and sales of ivories for commercial purposes by the end of 2017," said the official Xinhua news agency, citing a government statement.
The move has been heralded as a 'game changer' by environmental organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund and Natural Resources Defence Council, seeing as China is one of the biggest global markets for ivory, where it’s used as a precious material in jewellery, furniture, and sometimes even Chinese medicine.
"This is great news that will shut down the world’s largest market for elephant ivory," Aili Kang, executive director of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Asia, said in a statement.
With fewer than half a million African elephants remaining, the question is whether this be enough to save this vulnerable species from a steady decline into extinction.
More than 20,000 elephants are killed for their tusks each year, according to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, with much of it destined for ivory-hungry markets in China, Hong Kong, and the United States. Some African countries have even seen a 60 percent decline in elephant numbers between 2009 and 2014.
Since 1989, there’s been an international treaty in place outlawing the sale of ivory harvested after 1975, known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) But without local legislation to back this up, the treaty often goes ignored.
Last year, China committed itself to slowly strangling domestic trade in ivory products. "We will strictly control ivory processing and trade until the commercial processing and sale of ivory and its products are eventually halted," announced the head of China’s State Forestry Administration, Zhao Shucong in May last year.
This was just one part of a 10-point plan intended to eradicate the sale and distribution of ivory across the country, which included education campaigns and increased online surveillance. And there are signs that the demand for ivory domestically has already been dropping.
In March 2016 that control was extended to halt the import of ivory and ivory products acquired before 1975, which goes beyond the initial CITES agreement.
If you’re in China and want to offload your grandmother’s heirloom ivory teeth after that, you’ll need to be granted special authorisation. China will also retain a stockpile of ivory it bought before CITES introduced the ivory ban, which it can sell.
Given the growing Chinese middle class has a penchant for trinkets carved from elephant tusks, it’s hoped this national ban will give the international treaty some teeth. In nations such as Australia, there is no local law preventing domestic trade.
An investigation into the sale of ivory and rhino horn in Australia and New Zealand earlier this year found only ten percent of items being sold carried the right documentation.
With China’s progressive step, all eyes are now turning to Hong Kong which is permitted to run under its own laws. The World Wildlife Fund is calling on the Chinese territory to follow suit, and end its own ivory trade by 2021.
"With China’s market closed, Hong Kong can become a preferred market for traffickers to launder illegal ivory under cover of the legal ivory trade," senior wildlife crime officer Cheryl Lo told The Guardian.
Stamping out domestic trade is a significant step, if not the sole solution to wiping out the poaching of elephants. With around their population sinking from several million to 415,000 in under a century, time is ticking for the beloved animals.