KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Elephants, sharks, pangolins - China has been using these and other animals in food, art and medicine for centuries. Now, there's a fundamental shift underway. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing on China's changing attitude toward wildlife products.
(SOUNDBITE OF IVORY CARVING)
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Little white chips fly off in every direction with each blow of master ivory carver Li Chunke's chisel. Gradually, the folds of a robe, tassels and the hands of an ancient Chinese woman begin to emerge from a rough piece of ivory in front of him. He says nothing looks as smooth, nothing can be carved as intricately or as expressively as ivory.
LI CHUNKE: (Through interpreter) Whether I'm carving animal or human figures, I try to express their feelings. That's what Chinese consider most important.
KUHN: For the past 53 years, Li has worked at the state-owned Beijing Ivory Carving factory. Li says that every piece of ivory there is registered by the government and comes from elephants who died naturally. None, he says, come from black market poachers or smugglers.
CHUNKE: (Through interpreter) We ivory carvers hate elephant poachers. I would never touch a piece of ivory from a poached elephant.
KUHN: For years, China's government has argued that banning ivory would destroy the centuries-old cultural traditions that carvers like Li preserve. But last month, China announced it would phase out its ivory trade by the end of this year. Li and others saw the ban coming. Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping agreed in 2015 that both their countries would do it, and environmental groups and celebrities have campaigned for it for years.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
YAO MING: (Foreign language spoken).
KUHN: When the buying stops, the killing can too, former Houston Rockets center Yao Ming says in an ad for the group WildAid. Steve Blake, WildAid's acting chief representative in China, says that the ads appear to have helped raise awareness. His group does annual surveys asking Chinese whether they know where ivory comes from.
STEVE BLAKE: And would you support a government ban on ivory? And the supporting of the government ban on ivory from our surveys have always been over 95 percent.
KUHN: Last week, China's national airline banned the transport of sharks' fins. In a swipe at corruption, China banned shark's fin soup at official banquets in 2013, and Blake says imports and prices have since plummeted.
BLAKE: There have just been a lot of very encouraging signs in the last couple months of China's will to change this worrying trend of consuming endangered wildlife, and so they should be giving a lot of credit.
KUHN: Lots of details about the ivory ban still need to be ironed out like, for example, what the government is going to do with existing ivory stockpiles - buy it or burn it. Come what may, carver Li Chunke says he's not worried about his own survival.
CHUNKE: (Through interpreter) We've been prepared for this for a long time. We also carve mammoth ivory.
KUHN: That's right, the tusks of elephants' woolly ancestors are still legal to buy and sell in China if you care to go to Siberia and dig them up. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
(SOUNDBITE OF JENS LEKMAN SONG, "SIPPING ON THE SWEET NECTAR")
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