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Conservation in China and the Ivory Trade

Third and final in a series by Leo Carter (LBJ MGPS Student) covering his internship at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Tucked into a residential building outside of the Fourth Ring Road in Northeast Beijing, the field office of the Wildlife Conservation Society coordinates operations for all its ongoing conservation projects across China. From law enforcement training in counter-wildlife trafficking efforts in Southern China to Amur tiger protection and habitat restoration on the border of Russian Siberia in the far North East; from public awareness-building to governmental relations, a small, cohesive staff works around the clock to advance wildlife conservation goals in the world’s most populous country. My supervisor, the sole foreigner in an office of all Chinese employees, was in the office before me every morning and out long after I left every evening.

I had assured my supervisor that I did not need help getting settled. Two years living and working in central China had prepared me for the basics of setting up a life in Beijing. All the same, it would be hard to call what I received a warm welcome. It would be a week before I even met the person who had invited me to come work for WCS Beijing. Until then, intermittent directives via Skype were all I’d have to orient me on what would be my month-long research project. I came to understand that this was not due to lack of consideration or organization on their part. Rather, it was because the task at hand—the one I’d be contributing to—was so formidable and absolutely critical to the fate of a species and the ecosystem it supports, that it demanded everything of the people working on it.

During my month in Beijing, much of my research centered on existing and proposed bilateral and multilateral agreements on wildlife trafficking and related security and conservation issues between China and its bordering Southeast Asian neighbors. The scope of my research was to help inform potential future Memoranda of Understanding between China and its neighbors on counter wildlife trafficking cooperation. I looked at the strengths and weaknesses of existing cross-border security agreements, law enforcement exchanges, cooperative research and training programs, and ways to improve them. I analyzed how China engages with ASEAN on security and trade issues and the de facto alliances and rivalries that arise in this geopolitically tense region.

Wildlife protection is a nascent idea in the Middle Kingdom. Since the birth of The People’s Republic of China, conservation has been more about resource management preservation of wildlife and key habitats. Today, the priority remains sustainable human usage of natural resources and wildlife. The vague language and ambiguous objectives in the country’s principal piece of wildlife legislation—the 1989 Wildlife Protection Law— coupled with institutional constraints and unclear divisions of responsibility between government agencies make conservation in China a difficult proposition. Although it has been a signatory of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) since 1980, China, like the U.S. and other countries, struggles to apply consistent punitive measures against wildlife traffickers and maintains a large legal ivory market that is used by criminals to launder illegal ivory into the country. Complicating this further, there is a lack of understanding amongst both buyers and sellers of international and domestic ivory regulations. Even by conservative estimates, China is now the largest market for illegal ivory in the world.

The silver lining, surprisingly, is the Chinese government’s ability to act quickly and unilaterally in a way not possible in democratic political systems. Many times in the recent past, the government has enacted total and partial bans on everything from fireworks to smoking in public spaces within short time-spans. During my first few visits to China, I remember employees smoking in my high school’s cafeteria during lunchtime. Fireworks outside my window would wake me up every morning by 7:00 am and continue most of the day. But upon my arrival in Beijing this summer, a smoking ban enacted not a month earlier had emptied the airport, restaurants, and mass transit of smokers. Through a combination of pervasive public education campaigns and effective enforcement, these bans have largely had their intended effect. The bans were predicated on a need to reduce pollution levels and improve air quality, often before the outset of an important event—such as the 2008 Olympics or the upcoming military parades in September—or due to consistent public outcry for higher environmental standards. The issue lies not in the government’s inability to enact a total ivory ban, but in the lack of political will necessary to see one through.

On May 29th of this year, the director of China’s State Forestry Department declared the eventual phasing out of the entire domestic ivory market. A timeframe, however, was notably absent from the announcement. WCS China, in consultation with other organizations and representatives of domestic industries, is in the process of preparing a list of recommendations to the government on possible timeframes and measures to end the legal ivory trade while avoiding a spike in demand as the ban is implemented. The implications are enormous. Closing the largest ivory market on Earth could hugely reduce global demand for ivory and reverse the massive increases in poaching events in Africa. If not handled carefully, however, it could exacerbate current trends as panicky Chinese collectors rush to buy up all they can before the window closes. Over the coming months, these difficult issues must be resolved if a ban is to be timely and effective.

On a weekend bike ride north of the Great Wall, I contemplated the cultural differences in Chinese and American relationships with nature. Even 200 kilometers from the city under a cloudless blue sky, I couldn’t escape the clear signs of human environmental impact. I rode past row after row of neatly planted birch trees, all the same age and approximate height. Along the mountainsides lining the valley, similarly neat, parallel rows traced the contours of the slopes. Decades of unchecked resource exploitation and population growth had left these valleys empty of trees. Only recently has a political doctrine of economic growth at all cost been tempered by a desire to preserve what’s left of China’s wild spaces, and in some cases, even rebuild them. As for the African elephant, my hope is that people (Chinese and American alike) see more value in them roaming the plains and forests of Africa than mounted on a wall.

Edited by Mariam Ahmed

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