Increases in Rhino, Elephant Poaching Linked to China’s Economic Boom

A new study tying China’s economic boom to the proliferation of elephant and rhino poaching in Africa was published this week, just as global leaders convened on Monday in Geneva to discuss endangered wildlife species. 

Researchers found that a growing demand for ivory in southern China, primarily for “medicinal” applications, correlates to a significant rise in poaching incidents across Africa over the past few years. 

Conservationists are encouraging the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) at its annual meeting this week to endorse a “more robust approach” to protecting elephants and rhinos through stricter regulations of the ivory trade and more severe penalties for lawbreakers. 

According to an article in The Observer, surveys of ivory carving factories and shops in southern China showed the number of ivory items for sale has doubled since 2004.  Nearly two thirds of the 6,437 items for sale in one southern province were illegally traded.  Furthermore, researchers found that most items legally for sale lacked the required documentation and many of the traders were unregistered. 

The study concluded that the broad scope of the infringements indicates the Chinese government has not been enforcing regulations on the trade and sale of ivory.  The findings “suggest official inspections and confiscations have not taken place in most shops,” wrote the authors.   

Lead researcher Esmond Martin, an expert on the ivory trade, explained: “It is shocking that the retail ivory trade is not better controlled in southern China. China continues to be the largest importer of illegal ivory in the world, mostly from Africa, but also from endangered Asian elephants. Inspections of shops would not take much money nor manpower and would cut down this illegal trade significantly if carried out effectively. Such law enforcement is urgent to reduce elephant poaching.”

The rising demand for ivory in China stems from the country’s burgeoning middle class, whose economic liberation has led to increased consumption of ivory.  Many Chinese believe ivory has remedial benefits, as it was traditionally used in eastern medicine as a cure for numerous ailments.

Although its medicinal value has been discredited by the scientific community, including Chinese doctors and researchers, traditional belief in ivory’s healing powers remains deeply rooted socially.  China and Thailand remain the two largest markets for raw ivory consumption in the world, according to a UN report

The supply response to the increasing demand is evident in the escalation of rhino slaughters.  The watch group “Traffic” reported that 330 rhinos were poached last year – a stark contrast to the 13 reportedly poached in 2007.  In 2011 thus far, the UN reported nearly 200 rhinos have been killed for their horns. 

Further, changes in European law that have made legitimate sales of rhino horn much more difficult have conspired to hike the price of ivory on the global market.  In South Africa, the price per gram of ivory surpasses even that of cocaine.  With such a profit margin in store, incentives for poachers to supply the ivory is growing. 

The dramatic surge in poaching coincides with a series of thefts of rhino horns from auction houses and museums across Europe in the past year.  The Observer explained that more than 20 thefts across the European continent have prompted many museums to replace their rhino displays with fake replicas. 

CITES is said to be considering “targeted measures for tightening ivory trade controls all along the illegal trade chain in key African and Asian countries, and for raising awareness in Asian markets and transit countries.”

While conservationists stress the need to more strictly regulate the ivory trade, others argue that increased restrictions on legal trade will encourage illegal poaching, theft, and black market trade.  

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