The recent announcement by the central government of China to ban all domestic ivory trade and processing by the end of 2017 offers a glimmer of real optimism in the fight against elephant poaching. The decision is set to disrupt the global’s major marketplace for the product, as it will compel legal ivory processing industries to close down—thereby eliminating the cover under which the illicit ivory trade had flourished. Similarly, the ban will put in place strict mechanisms of ivory collection and disallow the display of ivory products in physical and virtual markets. With only about 415,000 elephants remaining in Africa, the step is crucial in ensuring the long-term survival of one of the continent’s most iconic species.
For a long time, notable entities the world over—Interpol, the United Nations, the World Bank, the Clinton Global Initiative, the European Union and the Duke of Cambridge, among others—had tried to tackle elephant poaching. And African governments have increasingly been cracking down on poachers and traffickers. But these were not enough to halt this crisis. It is China that has always held the key to unlocking—or should we say, locking up—this despicable crisis.
China is, after all, the world’s largest ivory bazaar, with approximately 70% of the product ending up in the country. By setting a specific end date for its ivory trade, Beijing has sent a strong signal that ivory’s rightful place is on an elephant and not as a decorative item in someone’s home. The move is clear indication that Beijing is making good on its commitment to the African Union and African States during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Summit 2015, to cooperate in combatting poaching and illegal trade in wildlife.
At 2015 FOCAC Summit, the governments of China and the African states committed to conserve Africa’s wildlife – reflected in the 2016-2018 Action Plan proposed by 6th Ministerial Conference in Johannesburg and their recognition of the need to tackle both local poaching and international organized crime, highlighting specific actions to be taken around poaching and trafficking of ivory and rhino horn. China has significantly shifted its approach to Africa investment, moving from one-off construction projects to a longer-term strategy for engaging Africa through industrialization, modernization, health and security. President Xi Jinping emphasized in many of his speeches regarding China-Africa cooperation the importance of mutual cooperation, trust, and prosperity.
The importance of providing stable sources of income to impacted communities, and framing conservation priorities as for the benefit of the people of Africa and China, is an important part of framing Africa investment activities particularly as an opportunity for China to support Africa in avoiding the detrimental environmental impacts that China experienced in its own rapid growth. These ideals should reframe wildlife and wildlands conservation as an essential component of sustainable development, as highlighted in the African Union Vision 2063. China needs to extend its ongoing collaboration with African countries to conserve natural wild land habitats by strengthening and expanding the continent’s protected area system for wildlife, ecosystem services, tourism, the benefit of surrounding communities, and a sustainable, equitable future.
China, beyond ivory ban, should support Africa in strengthening the coexistence of wildlife and human industries, with liveable cities and jobs for youth alongside large scale conservation preventing habitat loss and fragmentation. This will require a tripartite nature of cooperation, which must include action by China and African governments, business, and the general public. Each of these groups of actors must have clear guidelines and points of action to address conservation, and partnership opportunities should be identified between governments and between government and businesses.
There are strong opportunities to align Africa’s sustainable development goals with China’s commitment to help African industrialization and agricultural modernization. Agricultural production must be sustainably intensified and improved on existing lands to allow other lands to flourish naturally as large landscapes for conservation, wildlife and other economic development associated with wild lands and for future generations. Further, if conservation and sustainable development are going to succeed, jobs need to be created, through industrialization, so that Africa’s large youth population will not depend on exploiting natural resources to achieve a better livelihood – particularly for local people living in and adjacent to parks and wildlife areas.
The African Wildlife Foundation has been working with African ambassadors in Beijing for more than two years to make this an important part of China-Africa diplomacy. There is need for a paradigm shift in how Africa perceives, manages and benefits from her natural resource assets and how China views its long term sustainable relationship with Africa.