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On Sunday, the Thai prime minister promised to outlaw her country's domestic ivory trade. Yingluck Shinawatra's announcement at the opening of wildlife trade meeting Cites in Bangkok comes as African elephants are again on a dramatic trajectory towards extinction.

Many conservationists believe that this time the crisis can only be halted by addressing the demand for ivory in Asian countries, especially China which accounts for more than 50% of the world's consumption of ivory. Ivory was once only affordable to the very rich, and it conferred great prestige to its owner. Now, the possibility of owning ivory is real for hundreds of millions of newly rich Chinese people.

This lust for elephants' teeth in China has driven up the price to more than $1,000 per kilogram, up from $150/kg just six years ago. So much money can be made that it has turned elephant ranges into devastating killing fields across Africa.

It's not just the consumers back home in the motherland the presence of hundreds of thousands of Chinese expatriates in Africa has created opportunities to short circuit some of the traditional middle men. Now Chinese nationals can place orders directly from poachers themselves. In 2011 more than 150 Chinese citizens were arrested across Africa and according to the Kenya Wildlife Service, 90% of ivory seized at Kenya's airports involves Chinese citizens.

China is reeling under the implications of its role in this deadly trade, especially after persuading the Cites authority in 2007 that the country had adequate controls in place to manage legal ivory trade. That is when China won status as a trading partner for ivory which allowed it to import 67 tonnes of ivory from southern African countries. That trust was badly misplaced and it sent such a confusing message to Chinese consumers that it triggered a massive renewed interest in ivory.

In response to the findings of independent research which show that more than half of the ivory on the streets of China is illegal, the Chinese government has made impressive efforts to clean things up. A crackdown on wildlife crime dubbed Cobra was initiated and has resulted in hundreds of arrests and seizures of wildlife specimens, including 6.5 tonnes of elephant ivory. The illegal online trade in wildlife on websites like Alibaba, Taobao, and Tencent was shut down in June 2012.

But it's too little and it's too late. The damage has been done, a message has been sent that ivory is legal and the average Chinese person would like to own a piece.

Most Chinese ivory consumers say that they believe ivory is produced in a sustainable way, but in a National Geographic special titled Battle for the Elephants, researcher Bryan Christy shows that perhaps the problem is not awareness, but lack of compassion. The Chinese appear not to care about the slaughter that is going on in Africa as a result of their consumption of ivory. The conservation community has responded with massive education and awareness campaigns that target young people in an attempt to reduce the demand. Organisations like Wild Aid and WWF are conducting appeals to consumers via celebrities like basketball star Yao Ming. Changing cultures through appeals could take years, and in the meantime tens of thousands of elephants will die.

China has responded in a predictable way to accusations that it is responsible for the ongoing the killing of elephants, accusing African countries of failing to implement good policies and for weak enforcement. But even extreme efforts to hold back poachers are not working.

Kenya has invested millions in saving elephants, and more than 40 poachers have been killed. The amount of money at stake is so huge that it is driving impunity and corruption and poaching is now being conducted by armed cartels. The government of Kenya has declared the situation a national crisis and has agreed to apply anti corruption and organised crime legislation to combat the problem.

Solving the crisis requires much more than Cites. To those who have studied the crisis, the solution is simple, it lies with the messages that China releases. As a world superpower, key influencer in the far east, and a major economic partner for Africa, China has what it takes to make the difference for elephants and halt the extinction of the world's largest land mammal.

African governments have realised this and are now appealing to China to act as a leader. In a speech at the United Nations, Patrick Omondi, representing the Kenyan government said:

"People in China do not need ivory. They can live without it. We need our elephants. We appeal to the Chinese government to ban the legal domestic ivory trade and shut down all ivory markets".

This Kenya believes, would send the crystal clear message to consumers around the world. So far, China has not commented.
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