On 6 March 2015 a spokesman from the Chinese embassy responded to The Guardian article about our letter to President Xi Jinping.
Their reply did not address the main points but was simply a defense of China’s system of controls for their legal ivory market, which they claim is helping to protect elephants. Most discouraging is the comment on their responsibility for ‘carrying forward the intangible cultural heritage of ivory carving’, which suggests they have no intention of ending this indefensible practice.
This is our rebuttal to that reply:
We thank Deyu Miao at the Chinese embassy for the response to our open letter to President Xi Jinping (China has no truck with ivory smuggling, theguardian.com, 6 March), but must point out that this response did not address the main concerns expressed in the letter.
While we acknowledge the efforts China is making to control the domestic legal ivory trade, unfortunately these efforts do not address the unregulated flow of illegal ivory into the Chinese market, nor do they impact on the soaring demand for ivory from Chinese consumers.
It is well-documented that the legal ivory trade in China is a smokescreen for the illegal trade, and today illegal outlets far outnumber legal ones. “Once smuggled ivory reaches China, the line separating legal from illegal disappears” (IFAW, 2011).
The influx of legal ivory into the Chinese market, following the CITES stockpile sales, had the effect of spurring demand, pushing up prices, and creating a vast and unregulated gray market in which legal ivory provides outlets and opportunities for the sale of illegal ivory.
Surveys of ivory retailers in China carried out by IFAW, Save the Elephants, TRAFFIC, EIA, and CITES provide conclusive evidence of the failure of the Chinese government’s regulatory mechanisms to control legal ivory sales in China.
This system of controls is inadequate, full of loopholes, and open to abuse at many levels. For example, the use of old IDs of ivory objects to sell new pieces of ivory made from illegal imports is a well-documented ruse used by ivory merchants in China; carving factories sell directly to buyers even though by law they are only allowed to sell to retail outlets; and there is a flourishing unregulated online ivory trade (though technically considered illegal).
These loopholes, as well as the sheer number of ivory retailers, make it impossible for China’s registration and certification controls to function adequately. Therefore Mr. Miao’s claim that China’s control of the legal trade is protecting elephants is very misleading and not supported by the evidence.
We stated in our letter that many countries play a part in this tragedy. But the Chinese market is the most important factor for the dramatic increase in the trade of illegal ivory (confirmed by CITES), with about 70% of the world’s illegal ivory going to China.
Furthermore, it is no secret that Chinese nationals are the biggest buyers of ivory in Africa, and airport arrests of Chinese nationals smuggling ivory from Africa into China are also well-documented. (One of the largest of such cases was reported in November 2013, when almost 12 tons of ivory, worth 603 million yuan, was seized by Xiamen Customs.)
As long as the insatiable demand for ivory from China’s citizens is allowed to thrive, and as long as China’s government does not act decisively to shut down its domestic ivory trade, both legal and illegal, there will always be a huge incentive to poachers, and the decimation of the world’s elephant populations will continue year upon year until they are facing the abyss of extinction. Some experts believe this could come about within 10 years.
Mr. Miao cited cultural tradition to defend the ivory carving industry in China. Frankly, culture is no defense for cruelty. This explains why the Chinese people bravely ended the traditional practice of foot-binding, a practice that had brutalized Chinese women for hundreds of years. Culture is not stagnant. It has always been evolving with the progressive steps of human civilization.
China’s own accomplishments in the last century are a great testimony to its own adaptation to cultural change. No cultural or traditional practice that is outdated, unjust to its own people, and injurious to the interests of mankind as a whole, can survive the judgments of history. Arranged marriage and infanticide, practiced for thousands of years in China, failed to pass the test of history.
The ivory-carving techniques that are sustained through an unwarranted brutality to an animal species are obstructing human progress, tarnishing China’s reputation, and hurting the fundamental interest of humanity.