In the Virunga National Park in eastern Congo, members of the anti-poaching unit stand guard as police and conservationists investigate the crime scene. The mutilated body of the elephant is a gruesome but sadly all-too familiar sight.

Meanwhile, the poached tusks are already being trucked to the Kenyan port of Mombasa, where corrupt port officials turn a blind eye to the illegal cargo hidden in containers of tea leaves about to be shipped east. Middlemen in Singapore take charge of the containers and ready them for their onward journey to their final destination – China.

Thousands of kilometers from the killing, in a factory in China, a craftsman gets to work shaping the elephant’s tusk into ivory trinkets, ornaments highly prized by the country’s burgeoning and newly affluent middle class.

Image: WWF

This chain of events, though fictional, represents a typical journey for ivory. But it may be about to come to an end. That’s because China is winding down its ivory trade. Last December, the world’s second largest economy – and the world’s largest ivory market – said that it would stop the commercial processing and sale of ivory by 31 March 2017, and all registered traders would be phased out by the end of the year.

The move has been hailed as a game-changer for wildlife conservation.

The ‘blood ivory’ trade

Although the international trade in ivory has been banned since 1989, many countries including China and the US, another major market for ivory, continued to allow sales within their borders. Both nations have agreed to shut down their domestic ivory markets.

Sellers had to prove the ivory was of a certain age and provenance, but corruption and fake certification allowed the ‘blood ivory’ trade to boom in line with demand.

Around 70% of ivory ends up in China, and it’s a highly lucrative business. Poachers are paid handsomely for their efforts, and those further along the chain know that their booty can fetch up to $1,000 a pound. For the poacher, this makes the risk of being caught by an anti-poaching unit worth taking.

For the African elephant, it’s the single biggest threat to the survival of the species. Large-scale poaching to supply the illegal ivory trade claims the lives of around 20,000 elephants annually. If poaching continues at current rates, it could spell the end of the world’s largest land mammal.

Image: REUTERS/Kenny Katombe

So China’s move to end the ivory trade is welcome news. Initial reports suggest that the policy might work. Recent research found that prices for ivory are already falling as a result.

The impact of poaching

Poaching has been a problem across the world for decades, and elephants are not the only targets. Rhinos, gorillas and tigers are also among species poached by local people trying to cash in on a lucrative trade as well as well-armed, well-organized poaching crime syndicates.

Mainland China is not always the end of the chain: Hong Kong, Thailand and Vietnam are also thriving centres for trade in illegal wildlife.

A new report by the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) says that 45% of world heritage sites suffer significant poaching.