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On December 30, China announced a plan to end its domestic ivory trade, phasing out all ivory processing and trade by the end of 2017. Conservationists and human rights activists hope that the move will curb the mass slaughter of elephants in Africa, who face the threat of extinction and whose ivory is used to fund armed groups. China is reportedly the world’s largest elephant ivory market, with 50 to 70 percent of all smuggled ivory ending up in the country.
According to multiple reports by the Enough Project and others, the ivory trade has funded armed groups in East and Central Africa, perpetuating the poaching of more elephants and violence against civilians. The 2015 Enough report, “Tusk Wars: Inside the LRA and the Bloody Business of Ivory,” highlighted that Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has used ivory as a lifeline, poaching elephants and trading in the ivory for ammunition, supplies, and food. Trafficking kingpins, traders, foot soldiers, and Kony himself reportedly have earned $175,000 from each tusk. According to Invisible Children and Resolve’s LRA Crisis Tracker, the LRA was responsible for over 700 civilian abductions in central Africa in 2016 alone. In August 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department placed sanctions on two LRA leaders in an effort to curb their capabilities to commit violent attacks and to combat their role in the global ivory trade. Other violent groups known to commit brutal atrocities against civilians, like Sudan’s Janjaweed and the Central African Republic’s Séléka, are also connected to ivory trafficking networks, and South Sudanese armed elements are also involved in poaching and trafficking, according to African Parks staff.
Momentum to close domestic ivory markets in China and tackle the global ivory trafficking trade has been building for many years. In June 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a near-total ban on sale of ivory in the United States. In October 2016, after strong advocacy efforts by the Enough Project and leading conservation organizations, President Obama signed the END (Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt) Wildlife Trafficking Act into law, protecting elephants, rhinos, and other endangered species from poaching and the trafficking trade. This law, championed in the Senate by Senators Flake (R-AZ) and Coons (D-DE) and in the House of Representatives by Congressmen Royce (R-CA) and Engel (D-NY), makes certain kinds of wildlife trafficking a predicate offense under money laundering statutes. The law also supports the professionalization of partner countries’ wildlife law enforcement personnel and the park rangers who work to protect the animal populations that face threats.
In testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee in September 2015, Enough’s Sasha Lezhnev called on members of Congress to enact anti-poaching legislation. Enough’s October 2015 report, “Tusk Wars,” and the accompanying event on Capitol Hill, “The Illicit Ivory Trade and Joseph Kony,” helped illustrate the nexus between elephant poaching and human security in east and central Africa and contributed to a broader movement by many groups to galvanize public support for anti-wildlife trafficking legislation.
While China’s plan to end its domestic ivory trade by shutting down legal businesses is welcome, concerns remain about the illegal ivory trade. The ban on legal ivory trade could make the illicit trade more profitable for smugglers by giving them a monopoly or pushing the price of ivory higher. Experts warn that while the ban is an important step in the right direction by addressing demand, poaching in Africa will still require other steps to dismantle the black market trade.
- Click here to read Enough’s report: “Tusk Wars: Inside the LRA and the Bloody Business of Ivory”
- Click here to read about Enough's event on Capitol Hill: "“The Illicit Ivory Trade and Joseph Kony”
To learn more about the illicit ivory trade, watch this short video “Last Days of Ivory” by Academy Award-winning filmmaker, Kathryn Bigelow.