China’s vow to shut down its commercial ivory trade by the end of this year was welcomed by environmentalists as a turning point in the fight against poachers.
Activists cheered the government’s pledge for swift action, and the state-run news media called it a “monumental win for elephants.”
But in making the decision, announced on Friday, to bring the world’s largest ivory market to a halt, the Chinese government also saw benefits for itself.
The ban reinforced President Xi Jinping’s campaign against corrupt officials, who have been known to use ivory products as bribes.
It galvanized support among African allies, which have long pressed Beijing to help curb poaching, as China looks to expand its influence on the continent.
And the decision allowed China to burnish its image as a global guardian of the environment, at a time when advocates have raised doubts about the ability of the United States to lead on environmental issues.
Peter Knights, the executive director of WildAid, which lobbied heavily on the ivory issue, said Chinese leaders had come to realize that taking action on environmental matters like climate change and illegal wildlife trade was essential to cementing China’s place as a global superpower.
“With power comes responsibility,” said Mr. Knights, whose organization has spent $3 million over the last four years on an advertising campaign in China against the ivory trade. “They know it’s not worth damaging China’s international image to be involved in this business.”
For years, Chinese leaders resisted taking strong action to curb ivory sales, convinced that conservationists were overstating the country’s role in fueling a trade that has, by some estimates, killed more than 100,000 elephants over the last decade. Ivory carving is considered a fine art and cultural tradition in China, and sales on the mainland have thrived for decades.
But attitudes among top leaders shifted over the last several years, advocates said, as a wave of bad publicity revealed the nefarious activities of Chinese smugglers and as evidence mounted that China’s economic boom had led to a surge in demand for ivory. (The stockpile of legal ivory in China is estimated at $150 million, according to advocates.)
Environmental activists in China, many of them affiliated with American organizations, including WildAid, led a concerted effort to raise awareness about the issue, investing in subway ads and television documentaries. Celebrities like Yao Ming, the basketball player, spoke out, urging the government to ban sales of commercial ivory.
Still, there were doubts among Chinese officials about the need for more forceful action, and some argued that the problem was not booming sales of ivory in China but lax enforcement in Africa.
“Their position was, ‘It’s not our problem, it’s the African countries’ problem, and we’re doing everything we can,’ ” said Susan Lieberman, the vice president for international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York.
But it became increasingly clear to Chinese officials that smugglers were bringing ivory into the country illegally and marketing it as a legal product.
Ivory had become a status symbol among the rapidly growing middle class, used in products like necklaces and table lamps. Wealthy businessmen and officials were purchasing elaborate carvings as luxurious gifts or, in some cases, bribes.