This article was first published in the March 2017 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

The Great Elephant Census, led by the philanthropist Paul G. Allen and carried out with conservation partners in Africa, reports an astonishing 30% decline in African elephant numbers in just seven years between 2007 and 2014. This is equal to about 144,000 elephants lost, a severe blow to these intelligent and sensitive creatures. The peak year for the ivory trade was in 2011 when 30,000 elephants were being lost per annum. Since then the rate of loss has declined to about 20,000 elephants a year. There are now only about 350,000 African elephants left in the wild.

Then, late last year, in a move that excited conservationists, the State Council in China announced that China’s ivory carving workshops and factories were to be closed by April, and the system of registered traders and processors phased out by the end of 2017.

However, this measure may not prove as effective as hoped, due to the bustling illegal trade in Hong Kong and Vietnam, which is not policed by the Chinese authorities. It may also result in a rise in the black market trade and drive the price of ivory higher still.

Despite the Chinese government’s move, with many countries still holding stockpiles and with the growing affluence of the Chinese people, the demand for ivory is likely to remain, albeit perhaps at a reduced level. And if the trade continues, the slaughter of elephants will too. However, the action should lead to reduced legal demand and, in the long term, may help to save Africa’s elephants. 

While this step to ban the trade in China is to be welcomed, it must be accompanied by a strong media campaign designed to discourage Chinese people from coveting the African elephant’s tusks (as well as rhino horns), and also to reinforce the ban and deter people from going to the black market. Only a successful culture change in China and the Far East can truly and decisively end the demand for ivory.

A successful outcome has been achieved in the past for another animal that used to be in very high demand as a foodstuff in China – the shark. Not so very long ago, the much-loved delicacy of shark fin’s soup was decimating shark numbers across the Far East, even threatening ocean ecosystems. Finally, though, a massive Chinese media campaign got the message through and diners actually stopped asking for the soup, thus putting an end to the demand. We must hope that this can be achieved for the endangered African elephants too.

This is important in a continent that is engaging more and more with China each year, as Africa continues to experience rapid growth and attracts further investment in the frontier market.

From a negligible trickle in 2000, China’s trade with Africa topped $160bn in 2015, ranking it by far the largest trading partner with the continent. In 2014, China signed more than $70bn in infrastructure contracts on the African continent, and Chinese banks now provide more loans to African nations than the World Bank.

Some would say it is simply inevitable that some wild animals will become extinct in the face of such rapid industrialisation and development – as has happened before in other regions. 

Already in cities like Nairobi and Johannesburg sculptures of lions, elephants and other wild creatures are common sights in public areas. We can only hope that these will not one day be the only ones left, poor substitutes for the real creatures that roamed the land before they were pushed aside by the relentless march of progress. 

Alnoor Amlani FCCA is an independent consultant based in East Africa