07/30/2015 05:05 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2016

Preventing Extinction: U.S. Must Protect African Elephants as "Endangered"

When a high-ranking Chinese wildlife official pledged in May that China -- home of the world's largest market for ivory -- was working on a plan to ban the trade and sale of ivory he included a caveat.

The United States -- the second largest ivory market -- should do the same.

President Obama took a significant step in that direction last week when he announced new regulations restricting the trade of ivory over state lines and expanding limits on ivory exports.

The restrictions cannot come too soon: The ivory demand in China and the U.S. is fueling the poaching deaths of an average of about 100 African elephants every day, putting the species on the fast track to extinction.

The devil, of course, is in the details.

Chinese officials have subsequently said they're still working out the specifics of a ban that could start as early as 2017.

And though the new U.S. rules are designed to shrink domestic markets, the proposed U.S. Fish and Wildlife regulation continues to allow some interstate sales, including pre-existing products that contain 200 grams or less of ivory.

And that's a problem. Because both in the U.S. and China, any legal trade in ivory products provides traffickers all the cover they need to profit from a much broader market in illegal ivory trade, creating the level of demand that continues to make it well worth a poacher's time to slaughter as many African elephants as possible.

But the U.S. can take the lead on demonstrating how to dramatically cut into that demand by reclassifying African elephants as "endangered" from their current "threatened" status.

Last month the conservation organization I work for petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to do just that, and more. In response to a growing body of genetic research, the petition asks the Service to recognize that African elephants are actually two separate species -- forest and savannah elephants -- and to protect both as "endangered."

The science is solid: Genetic studies indicate the two split into separate species at least 2 million years ago, about the same time Asian elephants diverged from mammoths.

And the need is pressing: Only about 400,000 savannah elephants remain. Forest elephants, which now number fewer than 100,000, have declined by more than 60 percent in recent years.

An endangered listing for both species would provide the specific protections each species needs to survive and put stricter restrictions in place on the import and export of ivory products, including many of the older ivory products that continue to provide cover for a much-larger black market trade of ivory.

It's hard to overstate the potential impact of the U.S. protecting all African elephants as endangered.

By showing China that we're willing to take the first big step in stopping the elephant poaching that now threatens to wipe out African elephants forever, American action has the very real potential to spur a virtual gutting of the ivory trade in the planet's two largest economies -- which also happen to be its two largest ivory consumers.

The U.S. should not wait to see what China does.

It should step up and do the right thing for elephants right now, which will put tremendous pressure on China to honor its pledge to do its part to end the horrific and bloody ivory trade that's resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of elephants every single year.