Chinese authorities seized 2,748 elephant tusks weighing 7.5 tons on Tuesday, according to AFP.
The seizure was the largest made in the country in years, according to Sun Zhijie, the director of the country’s anti-smuggling bureau, who spoke with AFP, and it sheds light on the size of the underground market for ivory. In recent years, China, under growing international pressure, has enacted laws to restrict the sale of ivory, but this seizure shows that more work needs to be done.
In 2015, China made it illegal to import ivory into the country, and the country moved to entirely ban the sale of ivory in 2017.
These efforts were applauded around the world as a tipping point in the global fight against elephant poaching. In recent decades, more than 80% of some elephant populations have been lost to poaching. Between 2010 and 2012, more than 100,000 elephants were killed, largely driven by demand in China for ivory, which commanded $2,100 per kilogram at the height of the trade.
The movement to protect elephants has gained traction around the world, spurring countries including the United Kingdom to ban the sale of ivory. But setbacks continue. Recently, the United States government made it legal for trophy hunters to bring ivory into the country.
One of the biggest obstacles to ending poaching is arguably the underground market that continues to thrive in China, but the latest crackdown could be a turning point.
"[The operation] destroyed an international criminal organisation that for a long time has specialised in smuggling ivory tusks," Sun told the AFP. He added that 20 suspects were arrested for their role in smuggling ivory hidden amid lumber across the Chinese border.
#BREAKING China seizes 7.48 tonnes of #elephant tusks from Africa, the largest #ivory seizure in the country, 20 suspects arrested https://t.co/9Zqcf7zcpm via @Echinanews#wildlifecrime#wildlifetraffickingpic.twitter.com/khOR5zg59G— CITES (@CITES) April 15, 2019
Today, an estimated 415,000 African elephants remain, but 20,000 are killed each year. The World Wildlife Fund argues that the key to ending the ivory trade is going after demand.
People buy ivory, the WWF found, because it’s perceived to be a status symbol, especially among the emerging wealthy. Campaigns have been launched to inform people about how the ivory trade is an existential threat to elephants — and it seems to be working. In a survey, the amount of people who said they would buy ivory dropped by half after the Chinese government took action in 2017.
Globally, however, elephants are threatened by factors other than poaching, including habitat loss, climate change, and conflict with communities.