Almost exactly 100 years ago, a British botanist called Ernest Wilson laid down a compelling challenge for big game hunters: the giant panda.

“It is the sportsman’s prize above all others worth working hard for in western China,” he wrote. “No foreigner has so far seen a living example.”

The gauntlet thrown, hunters began flooding into China in search of the elusive beast and, soon enough, pandas became even rarer.

An industry quickly grew as poachers, on the promise of huge rewards, began combing the bamboo forests of Sichuan on behalf of natural history museums and zoos in the West.

Today, the cycle of history has turned and China has become the villain; accused of encouraging poaching across Africa and Asia by turning a blind eye to the illegal ivory, tiger bones and rhino horns that pass through its markets, it is at the centre of discussions at this week’s London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade. Demand from Chinese buyers — who are willing to pay up to pounds £180,000 (Dh1.1 million) for a single horn — helped to fuel a 42 per cent increase in rhino poaching in South Africa last year, while 22,000 African elephants were killed for their ivory.

China is “marching elephants towards extinction” said one headline, while conservationists have asked why the Chinese are not doing more to stop the slaughter.

Do they not care about the elephants? In fact, China has arguably the best record of any developing country for protecting endangered animals, saving not just the panda but also stabilising populations of Tibetan antelopes and black snub-nosed monkeys. Nor is it fair to point the finger solely at strange Asian desires for medicine and food made from endangered creatures.

The world’s second largest importer, behind China, of illegally traded animals is the United States. China’s success in bringing pandas back from the brink offers important lessons for other countries.

First, the government protected their habitat, imposing a national ban on logging, re-employing some of the loggers in new nature reserves, and spending tens of billions of pounds encouraging farmers to plant trees. Almost a quarter of the country’s natural forests are now protected. Then, the panda was monetised. China began to loan pandas to zoos for huge sums (Edinburgh agreed to pay £6 million for its pair) and reinvested the money in research bases to breed pandas. Those research bases have in turn become wildly popular tourist destinations.

As China grows richer, its attitudes towards conservation and environmental protection are changing. This year has also seen a dramatic success in reducing the trade in shark fins after a media campaign and a new government policy. But the country’s economic boom has also produced an emerging class of wealthy Chinese that sees ivory and rhino horn as status symbols.

In the case of ivory, a decision in 2008 to allow the Chinese government to buy 62 tons of ivory from four African countries backfired dramatically. The idea was that a stock of legal ivory would reduce poaching. In practice, it revitalised the Chinese ivory market, confused Chinese customers about whether elephants were endangered, and gave poachers a way to launder black market ivory.

The government, meanwhile, is making a tidy profit selling on its “legal” stock at a rate of 5.5 tons a year, giving it a reasonable incentive to keep the ivory shops and markets open.

“There are three reasons why animal poaching and illegal animal trading are still quite common,” says Jin Xiaojie, an environmental protection researcher. “The first is high profits. I spoke to bird poachers in Dalian and they said they could earn thousands of pounds for catching an eagle. That is a great deal for someone living in the countryside. “The second is Chinese traditions. People think some animals have nutritional value. There are misunderstandings. Even people who get angry when they see pictures of dead elephants suddenly become ambiguous when you ask them about tiger bones being used for medicine. Some will shrug that it is tradition.”

Nevertheless, surveys in China show strong support for keeping a 1993 ban on tiger parts in place, and larger companies producing traditional Chinese medicine have shunned endangered animal products, preferring synthesised ingredients. But the third, and most important factor, Jin Xiaojie says, is a faltering legal system and an outdated Wildlife Protection Act that simply fails to punish poachers and smugglers.

“There are cases when poachers and traffickers are put on trial, but very few. Poaching is a crime, but if they catch you setting a trap, that is not a crime in itself,” she says.

“If you are caught with a wild animal, you can call it a pet. They will confiscate it, but they won’t prosecute you.”

In a country that has hurtled through the past three decades, its society and economy utterly transformed, an update of the law was, understandably, relatively low on the agenda until now. Another conservationist, Zhou Xiaobo of the China Youth Animal Protection Alliance, says the situation has improved hugely over the past three years, both in terms of public awareness and government support.

“Beforehand, people saw poaching in Africa as a distant problem, and they did not see animals as being as important as humans. Now, ordinary people are paying more attention and criticising, and the government is taking action. Henan province recently banned the capture of wild birds, for example.”

The Chinese government is showing signs of being swayed by international pressure. As a major investor in Africa, it wants to be seen as a positive force for change, not as the destroyer of the continent’s remaining elephants. This year, it has arrested and begun to extradite a Chinese ivory kingpin, and last September it started sending text messages to every Chinese mobile phone user who touched down in Kenya, warning them “not to carry illegal ivory, rhino horn or any other wildlife”. It may yet be that the spirit of the panda will prevail.

— The Telegrap Group Limited, London 2014