At the recent meeting in Geneva of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species China was granted approval to buy legally stockpiled African elephant ivory.
The approval is subject to strict conditions and is only for sale in China's domestic market.
Members of the CITES Standing Committee agreed to the ruling, which comes into effect after it enters the meeting's formal written record.
The request by Botswana, Namibia and South Africa to trade African Elephant ivory was originally approved at the CITES Conference of the Parties in 2002 and then modified with new conditions at the meeting in 2007, including approval of Zimbabwe to trade its ivory. The CITES meeting was charged with deciding whether China could be approved as a trading partner. To gain approval, China had to convince CITES it had put in place adequate measures to tackle any illegal domestic ivory trade and to regulate legal trade effectively.
"Now that China has been approved, it has an opportunity to assist African countries, particularly in Central Africa, where elephant poaching and domestic trade goes unchecked, to improve law enforcement capacity, and support conservation programs," said Crawford Allan, director of TRAFFIC North America.
In 2004, the CITES parties drew up an action plan for tackling illegal domestic ivory markets, but so far, with the notable exception of Ethiopia, progress has been slow.
"The only way to end elephant poaching is through an effective clampdown on illegal domestic ivory markets," said Dr. Susan Lieberman, director of WWF International's Species Program.
"There are strong links between China and Africa, and WWF and TRAFFIC would like to see Chinese-government funded conservation awareness programs sending out a clear message to Chinese nationals abroad that it is illegal to buy and bring home ivory smuggled out of West and Central Africa," she added.
China joins Japan in having CITES approval to bid for registered, government-owned ivory stockpiles from four southern African countries—Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
Conditions of the sale direct the revenue into special funds to support elephant conservation and community conservation and development programs. Purchasing countries have to demonstrate adequate control measures to ensure that the ivory can be tracked and remains within domestic markets. The four African countries permitted to sell ivory still need to hold an auction and agree a price, and the transfer of ivory will be closely supervised by the United Nations CITES Secretariat. In 1999, Japan paid USD5 million for a similar sale of almost 50 tons of elephant ivory.