In what may be one of the biggest wins for endangered elephants in recent years, China and the U.S. agreed last Friday to begin putting an end to the trade in ivory! In a fact sheet released by the White House on the meeting between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, it is stated that the two countries plan to enact complete bans on the import and export of ivory:

The United States and China, recognizing the importance and urgency of combating wildlife trafficking, commit to take positive measures to address this global challenge. The United States and China commit to enact nearly complete bans on ivory import and export, including significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies, and to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory. The two sides decided to further cooperate in joint training, technical exchanges, information sharing, and public education on combating wildlife trafficking, and enhance international law enforcement cooperation in this field.


The announcement – which arrives so soon after President Obama proposed to enact a ban on the sale of ivory within the U.S.  – has been praised by wildlife conservation groups. Azzedine Downes, President and CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) commented, “Today China has slammed the door in the face of all those who are profiting from the slaughter of elephants. As the world’s largest market for legal and illegal ivory, this ban will save the lives of tens of thousands of elephants.” Grace Ge Gabriel, IFAW’s Asia Regional Director, added that “banning ivory trade in China, combined with vigorous enforcement and rigorous penalties for violators will stigmatize ivory consumption, supporting demand reduction efforts. As a Chinese-American, I am so proud to see China and America, the two global powers, taking the leadership role in the fight to save elephants.”

How the Ivory Trade Impacts Elephants

The world’s elephant population was severely depleted during the 20th century as a direct result of the worldwide ivory trade. In an effort to protect the elephant population, an international ban on ivory was enacted in the 1989; however, under this legislation, any ivory that was in circulation before the ban could still be imported and exported. In light of this “loophole,” new ivory has been able to slip into circulation with traders falsifying documents and antiquing ivory products to make them appear as if they pre-date the ban.

Sadly, as long as the import and export of ivory is allowed, the illegal trade continues to pose a threat to the delicate elephant population. It is estimated that one elephant is killed every 15 minutes for their tusks. If this trend does not slow down, it is highly likely that African elephants will be extinct from the wild within our lifetimes. Not only would this be a devastating loss in its own right, but it would also have a resounding impact on the elephant’s native ecosystem.

Many experts believe that the extinction of the elephant will lead to drastic ecosystem collapse in areas where they have traditionally been found. In his paper, “The Human Ecology of World Systems in East Africa: The Impact of the Ivory Trade,” N. Thomas Hakansson states that apart from humans, no other mammal can so profoundly affect their environment. Elephants dig deep wells in dry riverbeds to form watering holes for themselves and other animals. They also help maintain open grasslands in the African savannah. In areas where the elephant has been removed, drought, soil erosion, and the proliferation of disease-bearing tsetse flies – which thrive in the thick vegetation normally consumed by pachyderms – is commonplace.


Hope for Elephants Thanks to Action From the U.S. and China

While it might seem like the U.S. and China are just two of many countries that participate in the illegal ivory trade, the reality is that these two countries represent the large majority of the demand for this product.

An infographic released by IFAW last year revealed that the U.S. was the second-largest market for ivory products in the world, behind China. Between 2009 to 2012, at least 1,165 ivory specimens were seized by U.S. border agents … but IFAW estimated that this represented only 10 percent of the total amount of ivory being traded.


In China, meanwhile, demand for ivory products has been steadily growing over the past few decades, leading to the horrific deaths of thousands of African elephants each year. The illegal trade also helps fund terrorism and organized crime.

In effect, this latest announcement by China and the U.S. – if backed up by a rigorous plan of action – has the power to truly make a difference to the plight of endangered elephants, and will hopefully help fend off some conservationists’ terrifying predictions that these majestic animals could be extinct by 2020. It comes as a huge boost to all who are working tirelessly to save them. When the buying stops, so will the killing. For the sake of the elephants, let’s all hope this will be reality, soon.


Image source: Bernard Dupont/Flickr