Saying Beijing had improved enforcement against the illegal wildlife trade, the U.N. agency that monitors endangered species decided Tuesday that China may import tons of elephant ivory in a one-off sale from African government stockpiles.
At a conference attended by delegates from dozens of nations, a panel for the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, voted to authorize the purchase.
The standing committee overseeing CITES voted 9-3 with two abstentions that China qualified for the exception because it has dramatically improved its enforcement of ivory rules.
Still, there was opposition to China's inclusion in the latest auction from African countries Ghana and Kenya, which joined Australia in trying to block the decision. Those in favor included Britain, the European Union and Japan.
Staff for the U.N. group had earlier endorsed the move. "CITES verifications determined that China's enforcement score was 63 percent in 2008 compared to 6 percent in 2002 when the initial one-off sale was authorized," CITES staff said in a statement Monday.
"In spite of remaining a potential destination for illegal ivory, like other countries, China has now reached the required verification standards established by CITES for this one-off sale and could therefore be designated as a trading partner," staff added.
Tom Milliken, a senior investigator at TRAFFIC, the world's largest wildlife trade monitor, said that "it's very evident that China has made an enormous commitment. Seizures are occurring at a very fast clip these days. The government is putting a lot more in enforcement efforts."
Added Crawford Allan, director of TRAFFIC North America: "Now that China has been approved, it has an opportunity to assist African countries, particularly in Central Africa, where elephant poaching and domestic trade goes unchecked, to improve law enforcement capacity, and support conservation programs."
Allan also urged Americans to be wary of ivory. "Our investigations have shown that ivory is illegally traded into the U.S., too, and Americans should be careful not to contribute to the poaching of elephants," he warned. "Avoid buying ivory online from China, as China's approval for trade is only for their domestic market and is not to be sold internationally."
Only approved buyer was Japan
Elephant ivory is a booming black market commodity, with tusks, jewelry and trinkets bringing in millions of dollars for smugglers and sellers after it was banned globally in a 1989 U.N. accord. Since then, some one-time sales by African nations have been allowed on a case-by-case basis, but until Tuesday only Japan had been approved to buy it.
Some environment groups disagreed with the CITES decision, citing the Chinese government's revelation that it lost track of 121 tons of ivory over a dozen years that probably was sold on illegal markets.
China told CITES in 2003 that the "shortfall" — equal to the tusks from about 11,000 dead elephants — was accumulated between 1991 and 2002. The Associated Press obtained the document last week from the Environmental Investigation Agency, a watchdog based in Washington and London that sought to prevent China from gaining permission to trade ivory.
"There are just huge questions that are unanswered, and we believe the Chinese government has the responsibility to provide answers to the international community," Allan Thornton, EIA's chairman, said last week. "The ivory trade is out of control."
The group argues that China lacks control of its ivory and that allowing it to import more ivory legally would only lead to additional slaughter of elephants and greater illegal smuggling and trade for their valuable ivory tusks.
It says more than 20,000 elephants a year are killed illegally in Africa and Asia for the ivory black market, and that Chinese nationals have been implicated in illegal ivory seizures in more than 20 African nations.
Milliken, who was part of CITES' original mission to China in 2005, countered: "Does illegal trade continue? Yes. But that's probably inevitable. China is clearly rising to the occasion and putting out all the stops."
He rejected that one-off ivory sales have any correlation with a rise in illegal smuggling, noting the example of Japan.
Trade in elephant ivory far eclipses any demand for other animals' tusks. Much of the ivory destined for China is carved into jewelry and ornaments bought by tourists from other parts of Asia.
The U.N. body authorized Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe last year to make a single sale of 108 tons of government stocks. After the sale, the countries will not be allowed to export ivory again for nine years.
Conditions of the sale require that the revenue be used to support elephant conservation and community development programs.
Just how much Japan and China will each get will depend on a bidding system that will be created.
Tiger farming also on the table
CITES delegates also will discuss the farming of tigers in Asia, which is being sought by Chinese businessman as a way around a 1993 ban on trade in tiger parts — a valued ingredient in traditional medicine believed to cure ailments from convulsions to skin disease, and to increase sexual potency.
Conservationists, who say there are only about 5,500 tigers remaining in the wild, argue that the farms would spur illegal poaching of tigers because the parts are indistinguishable and it is always cheaper to kill a wild animal.
The U.N. meeting, which started Monday and runs through Friday, also plans to look into sales of mahogany timber from the Amazon basin and illegal poaching of rhinos in Congo, India, Mozambique, Nepal, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
On rhinos, CITES noted that "populations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Mozambique, Nepal, South Africa and Zimbabwe, are all suffering from poaching.
"The situation is so critical in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that scientists fear the population may have been wiped out. Illegal trade in rhinoceros horn appears to be a cause of major concern. It includes fraudulent applications for CITES documents, abuse of legal trophy hunting and the use of couriers smuggling horns from southern Africa to Far East Asia."