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Expert Voices

China's Ivory Crush May Be a Half Measure, But It's a Welcome One (Op-Ed)

China's ivory crush
Officials look on during a recent crush of illegal ivory in China. (Image credit: Copyright WCS China Program.)

Joe Walston is executive director of the Asia Program for the Wildlife Conservation Society. This Op-Ed first appeared in The Guardian. Walston contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

China destroyed a portion of its massive stockpile of confiscated ivory on Monday — a first for the country.

The action has left the international conservation community struggling with its conscience. Should we praise a monumental shift in approach to conservation by the world's biggest consumer of the world's wildlife, or condemn the event as posture, devoid of substance and commitment? Before judging, it's worth examining the situation in a little more detail.

It was probably no coincidence that China crushed 6.1 tonnes when, just two months earlier, the United States crushed a slightly smaller amount. In the United States' case it was almost its entire stockpile, while in China's case it is a fraction: 45 tonnes were confiscated between 2009 and 2013 alone. Which raises the obvious question, why only the six tonnes? If China was serious about destroying stocks, then why not destroy it all? To some this is enough to dismiss the whole event out of hand.

Workers crush illegal ivory in China. (Image credit: Copyright WCS China Program.)

But here's the point. So much of what is written in foreign blogs and by us western conservationists fails to recognize the internal struggles in China on this issue.

The importance of the crush is not its direct impact on the market price of ivory (zero) or the safety of wild elephants in Africa tomorrow (negligible); its importance lies in it being the manifestation of a very real debate within the Chinese government on this issue.

To dismiss the event without regard for this silent, but significant, struggle is too big a risk to take. This crush happened in the face of considerable resistance in some quarters of the Chinese government, while there are influential proponents of the crush who would like to see all ivory automatically destroyed after prosecution, with China agreeing not to buy future ivory from any legal sales.

Two African elephants in the wild. (Image credit: Copyright Julie Larsen Maher/WCS.)

The biggest fear is that crush contrarians within the Chinese government will use international criticism to prove their point: that China will just continue to be vilified whatever it does and it should therefore disregard the global movement against ivory. Similarly, government proponents of further, more influential actions against the ivory trade don't necessarily need our support, but they would like western conservationists not to be opponents to their cause. Hence, the move needs to be welcomed if only to embolden those within the Chinese government who are pushing for more substantive action on this issue.

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This is not to say conservationists should be apologists or sycophantic supporters of half-measures. However, I for one welcome this event with a cautious but encouraging message of congratulations with hopes that China takes further steps towards shutting down this insidious trade.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This Op-Ed was adapted from "China's ivory crush may be a half measure – but it's a welcome one," which appeared in The Guardian. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.