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 for 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 around the world — 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 a 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) to work together to combat poaching and illegal trade in wildlife.
At the 2015 FOCAC Summit, China and the African states committed to conserve Africa’s wildlife – this is reflected in the 2016-2018 Action Plan proposed at the 6th Ministerial Conference in Johannesburg and their recognition of the need to tackle both local poaching and international organised crime, highlighting specific actions to be taken against poaching and trafficking of ivory and rhino horn. China has significantly shifted its approach to investment in Africa, moving from one-off construction projects to a longer-term strategy for engaging with Africa through industrialisation, modernisation, health and security. President Xi Jinping emphasised in many of his speeches regarding China-Africa cooperation, the importance of mutual co-operation, trust and prosperity.
The importance of providing stable sources of income to affected communities, and framing conservation priorities for the benefit of both Africa and China, is an important part of framing African investment activities as an opportunity for China to support Africa in avoiding the detrimental environmental impacts 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 wildland 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 the 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 threeway partnership between 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 industrialisation and agricultural modernisation. 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 wildlands and for future generations. Further, if conservation and sustainable development are going to succeed, jobs need to be created, through industrialisation, 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. We have convened groups of Africans and Chinese businesses and civil society leaders to look at opportunities for cooperation on African conservation and development challenges. There is need for a paradigm shift in how Africa perceives, manages and benefits from its natural resource assets and how China views its long-term sustainable relationship with Africa. We stand ready to support China, the African Union and African states further to achieve the UN’s sustainable development goals and the African Union’s development agenda 2063.