As China steps into the new year, it is doing so without a once-thriving facet of its economy: the ivory trade. The country's ban on the domestic sale and processing of ivory and its products took effect on Sunday, making good on a commitment Chinese authorities made at the beginning of 2017.
The move, which effectively closes one of the world's largest ivory markets, has been hailed by conservationists as a crucial step toward combating elephant poaching.
"Decades from now, we may point back to this as one of the most important days in the history of elephant conservation. China has followed through on a great promise it made to the world, offering hope for the future of elephants," Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of the World Wildlife Fund, said in a statement.
"This ban alone won't end the poaching of elephants," she added. "It's equally critical that China's neighbors follow suit and shut down ivory markets across Asia. Only then can we ensure the open trade doesn't simply shift to other countries and offer traffickers safe channels for newly-poached ivory."
China's ban on the domestic ivory trade follows a similar measure instituted in the U.S. in 2016, when the Fish and Wildlife Service implemented a "near-total" ban to reduce the movement of ivory within U.S. borders. Both the U.S. and China — long the two largest markets for ivory products, according to Human Society International — had been negotiating on their proposed ivory regulations since 2015.
An international ban on the commercial ivory trade was established in 1990 — but, as NPR's Christopher Joyce noted this time last year, that rule hasn't exactly achieved all its aims.
"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," Joyce reported, noting that ivory taken from elephants before the ban was still legal to be bought and sold. "So people are still killing elephants but passing off their ivory as old, and therefore legal to trade."
That has had disastrous effects for elephants. Over the span from 2007 to 2014, for instance, a census of African elephants revealed that their population plummeted by nearly a third. That was a decline of roughly 144,000 animals in seven years.
Still, as NPR's Merrit Kennedy reported, there have been some signs of hope for the campaign against elephant poaching: Prices for the animals' tusks in China had dropped from $2,100 per kilogram in 2014 to just $730 per kilogram in March 2017. And Chinese state media pointed out that there has been an 80 percent decline in seizures of ivory entering the country.
And this, at least, is offering conservationists reason for cautious optimism — presuming the ban's enforcement is effective.
"It's critical that the new law be well publicized, and that authorities in China robustly enforce the ban," Hemley said. "At the same time, remaining demand for ivory must be addressed and redirected, not simply ignored."