Working at Swild I get some time each day to get on with some self-initiated work and do some research for the social media pages, to raise awareness of the state of certain species from Southwest China and create engaging content for our followers. Over the last three weeks I have learned about takins and muntjacs and their roles in the mountains and the lives of the indigenous communities living alongside them, as well as snow leopards for International Snow Leopard Day, toads and witchcraft for Halloween. Today I have stumbled across something new.
Ivory trade in China is the cause of the slaughter of 25,000 elephants in Africa every year.
The aim of Swild is to prevent extinction, support endangered animals and bring more awareness to the wildlife and natural landscape of Southwest China through education, and by providing engaging audio-visual content. It would be hypocritical of us to do this without addressing the negative impact China has on wildlife further afield, and celebrate the ways it is being remedied.
China is the largest distributor and consumer of illegally poached wildlife and wildlife products in the world, with ivory making up a huge percentage of this trade.
The main threats to African elephants are Illegal wildlife trade, Human wildlife conflict, Habitat loss and fragmentation. Because of urban development in Africa, elephants which would usually roam more than 30,000 sq km are now being forced to live in much smaller areas in isolated groups. In the 19th century, there were an estimated 12 million African elephants, in the early 1900s this number had dropped to around 3 million and today we are left with only 479,000 African elephants in the world. Asian elephants are also at risk, with only 40,000 – 50,000 still in existence.
Poaching for ivory kills more than 20,000 elephants every year, which works out at around 1 elephant every 25 minutes. It’s about time decisive action was taken to protect these amazing, intelligent and beautiful animals. The local people rely on the resources elephants provide by spreading seeds and shaping the landscapes. As one of Africa’s ‘Big Five’ their extinction would have a catastrophic effect on tourism which in many cases is an important source of income for the local communities.
“African elephants are fascinatingly intelligent animals and one of Africa’s most iconic species. But living in close proximity to elephants can be a challenge and the demand for ivory continues, meaning that tens of thousands of elephants are killed every year for their tusks. By working in collaboration with local communities, governments and other NGOs, we’re helping to find solutions that work for everyone, ensuring that the benefits of conserving elephants reach those that are impacted by the costs.” – Cath Lawson Regional Manager East Africa (WWF)
Kenya has attempted to show that it does not support the trade, with ivory burning as one way of communicating this intolerance. The largest and most controversial of these took place in April 2016, when 105 tons of ivory was burned. The problem with burning ivory is that it doesn’t destroy it, only chars the outside. It works as a statement to the people more than the actual destruction of the ivory, and is considered wasteful by many who think the products might have been beneficial for the country’s economy.
In 2016, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta said, “For us, ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants.”
In 2012, Yao Ming, a former NBA star travelled to Kenya to film a documentary about the poaching of African elephants. In 2013, alongside WildAid, Save the Elephants and The African Wildlife Foundation, and representing the Yao Ming Foundation, Ming launched his public awareness campaign named “Say No to Ivory” and “Say no to Rhino Horn”.
Since February 26th 2015, when China imposed a 1 year ban on ivory exports, there has been confusion over legal and illegal products. It has been difficult for the authorities to determine pre and post ban ivory and identify forged documents. Grace Ge Gabriel, the Asia Regional Director for the Internatinal Fund for Animal Welfare, said “This domestic ivory market confuses consumers, removes stigma about ivory, hinders law enforcement and stimulates poaching of elephants.” Clearly the attempts to regulate and reduce the trading of ivory were not enough, and there was still a huge problem within China’s borders.
Just 10 years ago, after being around for over 3,000 years, ivory carving was listed on the official register as a ‘National Intangible Cultural Heritage’. China as a country is united in its great respect for its history and traditions and so this decision meant a great deal to the Chinese people. As well as this, ivory has become thought of as a sign of high status and it defines luxury and prestige in its owner. Many people are holding onto their ivory like antiques in the hopes that one day it will become legal to sell them.
It can be difficult to induce change in China because activism is considered a threat to government authority. There are severe restrictions on NGO funding and operations and a close eye is kept on activist organisations. Even for peaceful protesters, many are arrested and even systematically tortured until they admit their actions posed a threat to the government and the people of China and agree to back down from their cause. Medical attention has been denied and ignored, and even after being released, activists have been prevented important medical care.
The worst case if this I have discovered is that of Huang Yan, who’s crime was speaking out publicly in support of rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng.
When she was detained in November 2015, police confiscated her diabetes medication, and worse still, her case of ovarian cancer was ignored. Despite discovering that her cancer had spread, Huang Yan was denied treatment or medical bail. Even after she was eventually released, her surgery in November 2016 was denied due to the hospital being pressured by the authorities.
“To advocate for human rights in China today, you must be willing to accept the reality that the government views your work as illegal.” – Anonymous
“It’s not civil societies’ style in China to influence policy directly, it’s much more valuable to build public awareness.” – Steve Blake from WildAid, Beijing
It is easy to despair when, even after all this suffering and change finally being put in place, there are still many people denying the benefits of the ban. State Forestry Administration argued that complete prohibition was unnecessary, completely disregarding the immense improvement the ban would cause. “[It] argued that from a business standpoint, wild animals are the same as natural resources and they can be used sustainably,” says Zhang Li, an elephant protection expert at Beijing Normal University; as if the life and consciousness of an elephant can be diminished to the same level as a plant or solar energy.
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- Photography by Charlie Hamilton James, National Geographic