China imposed a one-year ban on ivory imports that took immediate effect Thursday amid criticism that its citizens' huge appetite for ivory has fueled poaching that threatens the existence of African elephants.
The State Administration of Forestry declared the ban in a public notice posted on its official site, in which it said the administration would not handle any import request.
In an explanatory news report, an unnamed forestry official told the state-run Legal Evening News that authorities hope the ban would be a concrete step to reduce the demand for African tusks and to protect wild elephants. The official said the temporary ban would allow authorities to evaluate its effect on elephant protection before they can take further, more effective steps.
China is the world's largest consumer of illegal ivory, with skyrocketing demand leading to the slaughter of tens of thousands of African elephants each year, conservationists say.
Increasingly affluent Chinese see ivory as a status-defining luxury, and high profits have fueled a strong underground market for the product.
However, Chinese courts have stepped up prosecution of illegal ivory trade and authorities pulverized six tons of illegal ivory last year. News of the ban comes days ahead of a visit to China by Britain's Prince William, who has campaigned against illegal wildlife trafficking
Wildlife protection advocates welcomed the temporary ban but said it falls short of addressing a root issue in China — its large stockpile of legal ivory that provides for a legitimate domestic market.
"This domestic ivory market confuses consumers, removes stigma about ivory consumption, provides cover for criminals to smuggle ivory, hinders law enforcement and stimulates poaching of elephants," said Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, which issued a scathing report (PDF) suggesting Chinese government officials were involved in procurement of illegal ivory in Africa, called the announcement a "window dressing."
"It is unfortunate that (Chinese authorities have) not announced a much-needed policy change by banning all domestic trade in ivory — this is the policy change that could actually make a difference for elephants in Africa," said Shruti Suresh, wildlife campaigner for the agency.