A small but important change in Chinese law would help end the trade in Ivory.

In 2013, over 20,000 elephants were poached across Africa (report). These unsustainable levels of African elephant poaching correlate strongly with reports of increased seizures of ivory destined for China, where it is often considered a symbol of wealth and social status. As researchers concerned with conserving global biodiversity via reduction of the illegal wildlife trade we recommend a partial solution to this problem could lie in a small but important amendment to Chinese law.

My colleague Dr Zhao-Min Zhou, a wildlife enforcement officer in China, has been looking for ways to make wildlife policy more effective within Asian societies. During his time with our group at the Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics, Zhao-Min, together with myself and colleagues, revealed an overlooked loophole in China’s Wild Animal Conservation Law (WACL) that omits to regulate the private ownership of threatened species.

The primary intention of the WACL is to protect threatened wildlife from illegal poaching and trafficking, and can carry severe penalties. However, under this law it is not currently an offence to possess threatened species nor possess the products of threatened species. Due to this loophole, the WACL is at present inconsistent with INTERPOL and legislation of other jurisdictions (such as the EPBC Act in Australia, the ESA in USA and the COTES in the UK). Some wildlife products from large animals such as elephants, big cats and rhinos are greatly sought after and have a high market value.

The National People’s Congress of China (the highest legislative body in the country) is currently seeking advice for the revision and amendment to existing wildlife laws, in order to improve its relevance and application to the conservation of protected species. It is gratifying to see progress.

By combining 1) ongoing education about the importance of valuing healthy ecosystems 2) eroding the view that wildlife products are desirable ‘luxury goods’ and 3) closing the current legal loophole permitting private ownership, we believe there is an excellent opportunity for China to take a strong leadership role in biodiversity conservation in Asia.

Dr Rebecca Johnson
Acting Assistant Director, Australian Museum Research Institute, Science & Learning

More information:

  • Zhou, Z-M, Johnson, R.N., Newman, C., Buesching, C.D., Macdonald, D.W., Zhou, Y. (2015). Tweak Chinese law to end ivory demand. Nature 518, 303.
  • This work is a collaboration between the Chinese Public Security Bureau for Forests, the Australian Museum Research Instutute, the University of Oxford and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.