Truly critical moments do not often come along in wildlife conservation, but the decision of the Cites standing committee in Geneva tomorrow on whether or not to make China a licensed ivory buyer is one such, without any doubt.
If China's application is approved, the resulting huge increase in the legal ivory trade will give the biggest possible shot in the arm to the enormous illicit trade which is supplied by poachers killing elephants across Africa – 23,000 a year at the most recent estimate.
With its own problems of poverty and disease, Africa has no money to enforce wildlife conservation, and the only way to stop mass-scale elephant poaching is by choking off demand for ivory. Many experienced conservationists – not to mention the 148 British MPs who have signed an early day motion in the Commons – feel that if China gets the go-ahead tomorrow, the African elephant will be getting a death sentence.
Chinese consumer demand for shark fins for soup is already driving down shark populations across the world. The demand from traditional Chinese medicine for tiger bones and other body parts is a principal reason for the collapse of tiger numbers in India, even in what are supposed to be protected areas. A report from Greenpeace in 2005 alleged that Chinese demand for tropical timber was already the biggest driver of rainforest destruction in Asia. And now this rapacious, remorseless and unending demand for natural resources is about to be unleashed on elephants.
The moment is all the more critical because it has come out of the blue – the world has not yet woken up to what is happening, and until the situation was disclosed on The Independent's front page on Saturday, it had received virtually no publicity. The British Government appears to have been preparing to go along with China's application to be an ivory buyer, hoping that, since it was happening in an obscure committee meeting in Geneva, no one would notice.