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How serious is China about tackling ivory trafficking?

China does appear to be making a determined effort to tackle the illegal ivory trade, but cannot succeed on its own.

Last month, authorities in China publicly destroyed more than six tonnes of confiscated elephant ivory. It was a significant event, with ramifications for the illicit ivory trade yet to be felt.

Some hailed it as sending a clear message to poachers and smugglers that the black market in ivory is over; others that destroying ivory could increase prices and criminal profits, and ultimately lead to a rise in poaching; while many were puzzled by the apparent waste of a valuable commodity.

Undoubtedly, however, it was a hugely symbolic move. The official reason behind this public declaration of intent was that it would send a zero-tolerance message to poachers. Perhaps the action was also taken in view of the growing evidence of wildlife crime’s destabilising influence on international security, or a desire to protect threatened wildlife, or even to protect China’s international reputation and trade relationships with key African countries.

Whatever the rationale, there is little doubt it has raised eyebrows around the world of wildlife trade policy. And there can be little doubt of the underlying message from China—that the country means serious business in dealing with ivory trafficking.

Further evidence of that determination has been forthcoming: just days later, an unprecedented collaboration between government law enforcement agencies in China and their counterparts in Kenya saw the extradition of a Chinese individual, whom, it is alleged, was one of those organising the movement of ivory between the two nations by paying courier “mules” to transport it for him. It was a welcome example of international enforcement collaboration, aimed at the kingpins orchestrating ivory movements.

Such action could set a significant precedent. Replication of such collaboration not only in Kenya, but across the African continent would have a massive impact in turning the tide against the international criminal networks which are profiting from ivory trafficking. Meanwhile, China also played a leading role in Operation Cobra II earlier this month—one of 28 countries and agencies including INTERPOL, CITES and WCO taking part in this global law enforcement crackdown on wildlife crime. In China, more than 100,000 staff took part. Seizures in various countries included three tonnes of ivory and 36 rhino horns, and 250 suspects were rounded up.

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