China is key to ending ivory trade

Anti-scientific beliefs about the medical properties of rhino horn must be exposed

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The Chinese are coming. This is good news. An official Beijing delegation will attend this week's international conference in London on the elephant trade. This is a great gain for all those who have campaigned to save the elephants and rhinos of Africa, including the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge, whose idea it was to convene the conference; the British government, which agreed to support it and host it at Lancaster House on Thursday; and the readers of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday, who responded so generously to our appeal, before and since Christmas.

The root of the wildlife crisis in Africa is the demand for ivory and rhino horn in China and Vietnam. Thus the aim of our campaign was not just to be tough on poaching but to be tough on the causes of poaching. There is work to be done in Africa – of course, there is. The enforcement of laws against poaching needs to be fair and effective. The people who live near elephants need support to deal with the effects of poaching and to maintain a sustainable ecosystem for humans and megafauna alike. We pay tribute to the determination shown by the presidents of Chad, Gabon, Botswana and Tanzania, all of whom will be at the London conference.

But the key to stopping the extinction of elephants and rhino is curbing the demand for their tusks and horns. That requires a new cultural revolution in China – fortunately, not one as disruptive and bloody as the original, but one that could be achieved only with the co-operation of the Chinese government. Which is why it is so significant that, late in the day, the Chinese have agreed to attend this week's conference.

This is an important diplomatic breakthrough, for which William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, should take some of the credit. It is also worth noting, as our peerless environment writer Michael McCarthy does today, the increase in tempo that will be secured by making this week's conference an annual event, as opposed to the three-yearly cycle of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

The aims of the campaign must now be education, education, education, to adapt Tony Blair's words. Or perhaps we should adapt Deng Xiaoping's slogan of 1978 and encourage the Chinese to introduce a programme of environmentalism "with Chinese characteristics". The more that people – not just in China – understand that several precious African species are close to extinction, the better. The more that anti-scientific beliefs about the medical properties of rhino horn are exposed, the better.

The ultimate objective must be to end the trade in ivory and rhino horn altogether. That means ending the distinction between legal and illegal ivory. It is hard to clamp down on illegal goods while there is a parallel trade in legal goods. As Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative MP and former editor of The Ecologist, says: "So long as there's a legal trade, it'll be possible to disguise the illegal trade and allow it flourish."

Changing attitudes, laws and markets in China is not going to be an easy task and cannot be dictated from outside the country. That the Chinese delegation will be at Lancaster House this week is a hugely important and welcome advance.

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