The leaders of the United States and China, the world’s two largest economies, joined forces in September to protect elephants in the wild and restrict the ivory trade that threatens their very survival.

Wild African elephant numbers are down from about one million in 1980 to fewer than half a million today.  In the past five years, poachers have killed 60 percent of the elephants -- more than 60,000 individuals -- in Tanzania alone. Without immediate intervention, the Central African forest elephant population is on the tragic course toward extinction within the next decade. China and the United States are among the world’s largest markets for illegal ivory, and thus cooperation between our countries is critical in clamping down on demand.

We refuse to give in and watch these majestic creatures disappear from the earth during our lifetimes, but this is not just about protecting elephants. It is also about people.  I traveled throughout East and Southern Africa last year and saw with my own eyes the damage that wildlife trafficking is wreaking on communities there.

Hundreds of park rangers have been killed protecting wildlife. The money from the ivory trade is often used to bankroll militant groups, inviting even more misery and instability to the landscapes where elephants roam. We must encourage sustainable livelihoods for people and responsible stewardship of wildlife resources. This makes good economic sense, too: the tourism dollar value of a living elephant over its lifetime is often more than $1.6 million, over 75 times the estimated raw price of a dead elephant's tusks.

The commitment made during Chinese President Xi’s September 24-25 state visit to Washington represents a landmark in international conservation and the culmination of more than two years of earnest deliberations between our nations.  Our discussions at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing in July 2014 were a breakthrough, resulting in an agreement to expand cooperation on combating wildlife trafficking.

U.S. Department of State Under Secretary Novelli at a wildlife trafficking conference in Beijing, China, alongside former-NBA star Yao Ming [Department of State].

The momentum continued during President Barack Obama’s visit to Beijing in November 2014 when we reaffirmed our agreement to stop the trade in illegal wildlife products, from the source to the consumer.  Regular high-level talks led us to our announcement in September that both the United States and China would enact near-complete bans on ivory import and export. The announcement, that included a commitment to restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies, as well as an agreement for our nations to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory, is important since legal commercial trade is used to mask a much larger illegal trade.

The commitment from President Xi is groundbreaking, and we will work with the Chinese government to quickly implement a near-complete ban. We also plan to cooperate with other nations in a comprehensive effort to combat wildlife trafficking, including through joint training, technical exchanges, information sharing, public education, and international law enforcement.

For the past two years, the United States has supported capacity building in Africa for anti-money laundering measures, paid for with the confiscated proceeds of wildlife crime. We also recently supplied gear -- such as tents, binoculars, and flashlights -- to 550 rangers in Tanzania and are planning to provide $2 million to improve Tanzania’s ability to combat wildlife trafficking. Domestically, half of all U.S. states have enacted or are considering ivory bans, including legislation passed recently in New York, New Jersey, and California.

In his speech to the Chinese people last month, Prince William of the United Kingdom spoke movingly about how all the wild elephants and rhinos could be gone by the time his daughter reaches adulthood, and how the people of Africa are being robbed of their birthright by poaching and illegal trade. These massive animals are vital components of ecosystems that support all life on earth, and we all have a responsibility to future generations to ensure their survival.

The United States and China have come a long way to reach this agreement, and our two countries working together can have a major impact on the poaching crisis.  We urge other nations to follow our example and join in the effort to end the ivory trade and let elephants thrive again in their native lands.

About the Author: Catherine Novelli serves as the Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment.

Editor's Note: A Chinese translation of this opinion piece originally appeared on the website of China Business News.

For more information:

Learn about U.S. State Department efforts to combat wildlife trafficking.

Read the Implementation Plan for the U.S. National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking.

Find out more about China and the United States' efforts to cooperate to combate wildlife trafficking.

See photos from U.S. government #IvoryCrush events that discourage the purchase of ivory products.

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