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OK, time to get 2017 started in earnest! I have some resolutions and ideas–and I’m looking forward to hearing your New Year plans too. But first there is extremely good news in the paper, so let’s lead with that:  the People’s Republic of China has announced that they are shutting down their national trade in ivory by the end of 2017.  The world’s most populous nation is by far the world’s largest ivory consumer: estimates suggest that it accounts for as much as 70% of ivory demand.  The tusks of slaughtered elephants reach the nation illegally and then become part of a vast economy of carvers, traders, dodgy antiques merchants, and suchlike sellers.  All of this is to feed the growing appetite of China’s new middle class, who are hungry for anything which confers status (but who do not necessarily understand just how sapient, compassionate, and irreplaceable elephants are).

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The ban is said to be a direct result of a meeting between the world’s two most powerful men, President Xi Jinping and President Obama, who laid the groundwork for a comprehensive ban when they met in Washington in 2015.  Obama tightened up surprisingly lax ivory rules in America in an effort to save the last proboscideans.  It is a great pleasure to see China’s leadership follow the same path.  The New York Times has noted that the ban is not just sound environmental policy, but also makes sense both politically and economically.  Perhaps other ivory-consuming nations will follow suite! I will be sure to praise their far-sighted leaders as well.

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However elephant conservationists must not pretend the Chinese ivory ban alone has saved our big gray friends. Elephants are in deep trouble. Climate change, habitat loss, and, above all, poaching still threaten the giants. Powerful forces in China (and even here, in the increasingly reactionary United States) will conspire to restart the ghastly trade.  Additionally the mayhem in central Africa which has allowed poachers to flourish is far from over.  Yet this unexpected boon from the Middle Kingdom is a cause for great hope. Let us thank our friends in China for their thoughtfulness and use their fine example as a cause to redouble our own efforts.  If we keep working together we can make sure elephants are still with us not just in 2017 but in all the years to come.

Guangzhou China

Guangzhou China

I love China. During five millennia of continuous civilization, the Chinese people discovered many of the most fundamental breakthroughs which have propelled humankind forward: today the Chinese government is rapidly pumping money into research (even as our own leaders decide to turn their backs on science and discovery).  Chinese literature and art are hauntingly ineffable—the saddest and most beautiful in the world.  China is huge and gorgeous and bewildering.  It is its own world of peoples, sweeping vistas, and wonders! Today China is rapidly becoming a paramount global superpower—as befits a nation which contains a fifth of humankind.

A scroll painting of an elephant and scholar from the 1920s

A scroll painting of an elephant and scholar from the 1920s

Yet modern China has been a poor neighbor (!) and an absolutely terrible steward of nature and the environment. I will leave out details about local wars, nightmarish buffer states, and wholesale toxic pollution of entire regions to instead concentrate on markets for traditional medicine, cuisine, and craft—where so many of the world’s endangered animals vanish for no good reason.  Chinese leaders are quick to point out the high environmental costs of rapid modernization and point fingers at the western world’s excesses during the industrial revolution and the gilded age (and today).  But what do foolish superstitions and flagrantly useless status symbols have to do with these arguments? If contemporary China wishes to be taken seriously as a conscientious nation, it needs to at least take steps to reduce the endangered animal trade which is needlessly driving so many wonderful creatures extinct.

They are so beautiful--and they are going extinct.

They are so beautiful–and they are going extinct.

That actually happened today (also known as yesterday on the Chinese side of the globe)!  China is the world’s largest consumer of ivory.  As tens of millions of consumers become middle class (or affluent…or rich) the demand for intricately carved elephant tusks has risen meteorically.  Africa of course has its own troubles and a small amount of money can seem like a great deal there.  In practice this means that the last great herds of elephants are swiftly being poisoned or shot so that their tusks can fetch a premium in the rising cities of China. It is a heartbreaking tragedy that an animal which lives as long as a person (and seems to feel emotions just as deeply) should be killed for two of its teeth. How absolutely horrifying it is to imagine the extinction of all elephants for petty vanity. What would be the purpose of a world with no elephants?

Yao Ming--hero to elephant lovers (even though he is very small compared to the great animals)

Yao Ming–hero to elephant lovers (even though he is very small compared to the great animals)

The Chinese are not monolithic and educational quirks (excesses?) of the Cultural Revolution generation have meant that many people are ignorant of elephants’ magnificent nature (and slow reproduction).Yao Ming who played basketball or something in America has unexpectedly become one of my greatest heroes by spearheading a public awareness campaign to teach people about elephants and to prevent their extinction. Other pachyderm crusaders have also taken up the cause (along with international NGOs) and the central government has finally taken notice.  Authorities crushed six tons of confiscated ivory into powder in Dongguan, China, on January 6, 2014.

Authorities in Guangzhou with the captured ivory (which equals one fifth of the illegal ivory taken last year)

Authorities in Guangzhou with the captured ivory (which equals one fifth of the illegal ivory taken last year)

Of course it is a bit of an easy question: should the world’s other great order of immensely intelligent social land mammal be killed for stupid ornamental knickknacks? But China has answered it properly (finally) and I offer them my unreserved respect and admiration.  With their growing space program, their rapidly improving universities, and their new environmental awareness, China truly is improving and growing very quickly. Hopefully it isn’t too late for the poor elephants which are still left alive.

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