NAIROBI, Jan. 13 (Xinhua) -- A coalition of 15 African countries on Friday welcomed China's commitment to closing its domestic ivory markets by the end of 2017, saying the move signals Beijing's goodwill in protecting Africa's elephants.
The countries that are members of the Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI) said in a joint statement issued in Nairobi that the closure of China's ivory market is a crucial step to securing a future for elephants in their current range.
Brighton Kumchedwa, Director of National Parks and Wildlife for Malawi, welcomed Beijing's pledge to stop their domestic ivory trade in 2017, saying it will both reduce demand and close the legal markets through which criminals are known to launder illegal ivory.
"Malawi has taken our own fight to combat illegal ivory trade to another level -- just last month the courts have passed record sentences for wildlife crime, and parliament passed new wildlife legislation," Kumchedwa said.
"But as one country there is only so much we can do, and China's commitment has boosted our determination and belief that if we all work together we can indeed save Africa's elephants from extinction," the director said.
The EPI is a pledge by African leaders to actions to protect their elephants and to push for the closure of ivory markets in source, transit and consumer countries.
The announcement by China stipulated a phased schedule to revoke some licenses by March 2017 and to eventually stop all commercial ivory carving and retail sales by the end of 2017.
The plan also encourages shifting carvers to other materials and preserving ivory for their non-commercial cultural value.
"Their declaration shows a commitment to leadership on conservation at the highest level," said Dawud Mume Ali, Director General of the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority.
Ali said the world must end its appetite for ivory which he said belongs to elephants.
"We hope that other consumer countries will join China in banning the trade. United we can make a difference," he added.
According to the Great Elephant Census, over 144,000 African elephants in the last seven years were slaughtered for ivory.
John Stephenson, CEO of Stop Ivory, which, together with Conservation International, serves as co-secretariat of the EPI, said the member states of the EPI, and their partners, know that to protect elephant populations, domestic ivory markets must close.
"Where markets exist, demand for ivory is perpetuated and easily laundered illegal ivory has a place to hide," said Stephenson.
He said the leadership and advocacy of African governments, particularly at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Conference of the Parties in September 2016 has undoubtedly played a key role in China's willingness and commitment to stop the trade.
In recent years, consignments of illegal ivory, many of which could be weighed by the tonne, were intercepted en route from Africa to Asia.
The involvement of highly organized criminal networks is clear, as is the devastating effect of their lucrative trade on elephant populations, local communities and national security.
The EPI was established in February 2014 at the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade by leaders from Botswana, Chad, Gabon, Ethiopia and Tanzania as an urgent response to this elephant poaching crisis.
They have since been joined by 10 more states: Uganda, Gambia, Malawi, Kenya, Liberia, Congo, Angola, Sierra Leone, Somalia and South Sudan.