NAIROBI - The sale of ivory just became illegal in mainland China, a move heralded by conservationists, who say the legal trade has been providing cover for its illegal counterpart, perpetuating the belief it is okay to buy and own ivory.
Max Graham, CEO of the elephant conservation group Space for Giants, welcomed the news, saying the fact that China has taken this stand means that "there's a new conservation superpower in the world that is taking its responsibilities seriously."
"And we're hugely enthusiastic about this because obviously the ivory trade is a huge challenge," he said. "But the illegal wildlife trade more generally has many challenges in Asia, particularly in China, where traditional uses of wildlife parts have been fueling the massive loss of species, rare species around the world. So to see China take this stand is very encouraging. It's the best Christmas present that the conservation community could actually have."
China announced the ban at the end of 2016 and put it into effect at the end of 2017, surprising those who thought it might take up to five years to go into effect. Conservationists are optimistic, although they say it is too early to predict how it will be enforced.
Save the Elephants CEO Frank Pope believes the ban could prove "transformational" for the fortunes of elephants, but he cited one caveat.
"As you squeeze the balloon of the Chinese trade, you're going to see secondary markets popping up around the borders," he said. "And that's what we're already seeing in Vietnam, in Laos, in Myanmar, and even in Hong Kong, which functions as external to China. All of these places have markets that have boomed with the restrictions, the looming restrictions in China."
Like his conservation colleagues, Philip Muruthi, vice president of species conservation at the African Wildlife Foundation, also praised the ban and noted the importance of preventing the market from shifting to other locations and helping preserve endangered species.
"About 35,000 elephants — the number we've heard quoted many times — are lost each year. There are about 415,000 elephants on this continent. That means that within 20 years, if the pace is kept of that loss, we will not have elephants, and therefore, all the aspirations that African people have for using wildlife and associated habitat for development, for tourism in countries like Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and all that, those aspirations will not be met. So this is big. "
But he said elephants will not be the only beneficiaries.
"This is not just about elephants, " he added. "It's also about the economy, it's about African peoples' well-being. It's about our heritage. So this is a significant step that China has taken."
Conservationists say while combating poaching is critical, one of the bigger threats to elephants in the long-term is habitat management. They urge African governments, and China, through its support, to help reduce the threats.