By Xinhua writers Luan Xiang, Liu Wei
BEIJING, Dec. 30 (Xinhua) -- A great step toward reducing elephant poaching will come into effect on Sunday when it will become illegal to process or sell ivory and its products in China, once the world's largest market.
"It is a day to be inscribed into history," said Zhou Fei, head of TRAFFIC China and the Wildlife Trade Programme of WWF China, in an interview with Xinhua. "A historic moment has finally arrived".
He said the move would help end the poaching of African elephants and reverse the decline of wild African elephant populations.
On Friday, an awareness campaign began, supported by the State Forestry Administration (SFA), China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA), World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and WildAid, among others. Former NBA All-Star and national political advisor Yao Ming, a long-time WildAid ambassador, features in a video and billboard campaign.
"We can start 2018 hopeful that elephants will be safer now that China has banned commercial ivory sales. Prices are down and law enforcement efforts in many parts of Africa and Asia are much improved," said WildAid CEO Peter Knights.
"The UN has unanimously called for domestic ivory sales bans, and many other countries are responding with action. Japan alone remains unwilling to join the global community on this issue," Knights said. Almost all countries have outlawed sales of ivory.
The current partial ban has already led to an 80 percent decline in seizures of ivory entering the country, as well as a 65 percent decline in raw ivory prices.
"China's ban is crucial for elephants," Knights said. "As the U.S. steps back from international environmental commitments, Chinese leadership is essential."
On Feb. 26, 2015, China announced a one-year ban on imports of ivory carvings, which has since been extended. On Dec. 31, 2016, China declared a complete stop to the domestic ivory trade within a year. By March 3 this year, 67 factories and shops had been closed. The remaining 105 will close by Sunday.
Poaching is estimated to claim about 30,000 elephants each year. But things are improving. In Kenya, 390 elephants were killed in 2013. The number had fallen to only 46 last year.
Dr. Fred Kwame Kumah, head of the WWF regional office for Africa, said that the ban would be a step closer to a world without any demand for ivory. The next few months, he said, would be critical to how the ban is enforced.
In 2012, Yao and WildAid produced the first documentary on ivory poaching to air on state-broadcaster China Central Television.
With WildAid, the African Wildlife Foundation and Save the Elephants, Yao Ming launched one of the largest ever public awareness campaigns making use of more than 180 million U.S. dollars in free media space from 2013-2016. As a result, a 2017 WildAid survey showed a 70 percent increase in knowledge that ivory comes from poached elephants over five years.
In 2014, Yao proposed to the National People's Congress that ivory sales be banned. Speaking with a Xinhua reporter, he said that buying ivory was buying bullets, and asked the Chinese people to say no to ivory and rhino horn.
That same year, China destroyed its first batch of seized ivory, a sea change in the government attitude.
Many Chinese celebrities joined Yao in the "Ivory Free" campaign, along with international icons, including Prince William and David Beckham. Dozens of messages by WildAid ambassadors were broadcast on TV, outdoor video screens and in movie theaters. Thousands of billboards went up in over 20 Chinese cities.
IUCN estimates that the population of African elephants declined by 111,000 over the last decade. While efforts in Eastern Africa have helped reduce poaching to pre-2008 levels, unfortunately the illegal killing of Central Africa's forest elephants remains high. This compounds the dramatic losses experienced in the region over the past decade. Between 2008 and 2016, elephant populations declined by 66 percent in parts of Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Gabon, according to a WWF survey.
Since 2012, China has made building an "ecological civilization" a development priority, with the protection of its fauna and flora, including wildlife, a crucial element, according to Steve Blake, WildAid's Beijing Office representative.
From 2013 to 2016, China organized and led worldwide cooperation against rhinoceros horn smuggling alongside international law enforcement agencies, conservation groups and authorities from other countries and regions.
The anti-smuggling bureau of China's General Administration of Customs last year filed 1,223 criminal cases involving wildlife trafficking, arrested 2,196 suspects, and broke up more than 200 criminal gangs in China and abroad, according to the Animal Welfare Institute.
The administration organized and participated in numerous national and international operations to combat wildlife crimes.
"This achievement has been hard-won. As a Chinese national who works in an international organization, I feel proud," said Zhou Fei, in a promotional video released by TRAFFIC on Chinese social media. "Our government chose to stand on the right side of history at a critical moment."