BEIJING A senior U.S. official told China on Friday that its legal imports of ivory act as a loophole for illegal traders, and that it needs to understand the importance of wildlife NGOs.
China signed a pact banning global trade in ivory in 1981, but it got an exemption in 2008 to buy 62 tonnes of ivory from several African nations. It releases a portion of that stockpile each year to government-licensed ivory carving factories.
China, the world's biggest consumer of elephant tusks, said in February it would ban the import of African ivory carvings for one year, but conservationists say the country's growing appetite for the contraband imports has fueled a surge in poaching in Africa.
"We talked about the fact that legal ivory trade becomes a loophole that illegal trade moves in," Sally Jewell, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, told Reuters after meeting Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang and other officials in Beijing.
"They understand that."
Jewell said the discussions touched on the trade of pangolins, turtles and tortoises, but did not touch on persistent black market sales of tiger products in China, which conservationists have long criticized. Many in China believe tiger bones and bile have medicinal properties.
U.S. and Chinese officials agreed last week during high-level talks in Washington to work together to end the "massacre" of wildlife and reduce the flow of illegal wildlife trafficking.
Jewell said no agreements were signed and China has not yet committed to a timeline to totally end ivory imports but said "there is an intent to move in that direction".
Jewell's visit is to lay the groundwork for agreements on wildlife trafficking that the two countries' leaders may sign next time they meet. Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama are scheduled to meet in September.
The U.S. and China are both among the largest markets for illegal wildlife trade, which contributes nearly $10 billion in profits to criminal groups annually, according to the U.S. State Department.
An official at China's State Forestry Administration said Wang and other officials present at the talks were not available to respond to reporters' questions.
Jewell added she stressed the importance of non-governmental organizations in combating wildlife trafficking, including the "importance of NGOs operating in China".
China's government has intensified a clampdown on foreign and domestic NGOs in recent months.
Western governments have pressured the government to revise a proposed law they say would severely restrict NGOs' activities, including giving broad latitude to the police to regulate their activities and funding.
(Editing by Ben Blanchard)