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Almost a million elephants roamed Africa 25 years ago. Assessments of their population now vary but suggest there are fewer than half that many. The main reason for the decline is ivory. Despite a 1989 ban on ivory trade, poachers continue to kill elephants for their tusks.
Now China, the destination for most of that ivory, has announced it will shut down its domestic ivory market.
Wildlife experts had thought that the international ban on ivory trade would slow or even stop the killing of elephants for their tusks. It didn't. In fact, the killing got worse. That's mostly because the ban didn't cover older ivory, that is, ivory taken from elephants before the 1989 ban. So people are still killing elephants but passing off their ivory as old, and therefore legal to trade.
John Robinson, with the Wildlife Conservation Society, says efforts to stop the supply of ivory at the source, in Africa, have not been very successful. "Addressing the demand is absolutely essential if we are going to deal with the poaching issues," he says.
The biggest source of demand for ivory has been China. "Almost all the ivory is for carving," says Robinson. "China has had a history of doing so. Whole tusks are carved into elaborately assembled pieces of one kind or another."
Now China has agreed to close down that legal trade by the end of 2017. Robinson says it's an announcement conservationists have been waiting for since 2015, when U.S. and Chinese officials started negotiating an end to China's trade. "Certainly closing down domestic ivory in China will have a dramatic impact," says Robinson. "The Chinese market is the largest ivory market in the world." Says conservation expert Elly Pepper at the Natural Resources Defense Council: "It's a game changer and could be the pivotal turning point that brings elephants back from the brink of extinction."
The Chinese government has laid out an extensive plan that includes putting ivory carvers to work on existing museum pieces or other projects. The government says it will also educate the public on the consequences of ivory trading for elephant populations.
The Obama administration already has shut down almost all trade in ivory in the U.S., and several states have their own bans.
Robinson says the Chinese decision may help convince other countries that trade in ivory, such as Vietnam, the United Kingdom and Japan, to do the same.