Can Beijing’s Ivory Ban Save the Elephants?

A ChinaFile Conversation

On New Year’s Eve, Beijing announced it will ban the ivory trade in China, potentially shutting down the world’s biggest ivory market. Why did Beijing decide to curb the ivory trade? Will it put enough muscle behind it to enforce the decision? What impact will the ban have on elephant poaching? —The Editors


Hooray! The Chinese government finally came to its senses and announced that after 2017 it will no longer be legal to sell or trade ivory. Beijing’s announcement was long overdue and highly anticipated, particularly among Western wildlife conservationists who pegged a Chinese ivory ban as the last best hope to save what’s left of Africa’s rapidly shrinking elephant population.

China is by far the world’s largest market for ivory where, until the end of 2017, five tons of ivory have been permitted to be sold every year. The problem is that demand for ivory in China averages somewhere around 100 tons annually and it’s been impossible to segregate the limited amount of legal ivory from the black market supplies that have flooded the market. With so much ivory circulating in China, according to critics, the demand for ivory products will remain strong, which is why activists have spent years lobbying Chinese officials to eliminate this grey area with a total ban on all ivory sales.

The thinking here is that “when the buying stops, the killing can too” and while that catchy tag line is obviously very compelling in its simplicity, the reality is that China’s announced ban alone will not be enough to stop this bloody trade. Well beyond 2017, China will likely continue to be a lucrative market for what will now be exclusively illegal ivory. Corruption and weak rule of law in China will act as lubricants among the highly-organized international crime syndicates who will easily import this illicit precious resource. Even if Chinese authorities are successful in cracking down, neighboring countries like Vietnam will also serve as new gateways for ivory traders to transit their cargo across the border.

Just as a 30-year-old “War on Drugs” in the United States did absolutely nothing to stem the flow of illegal drugs into America’s cities, there is little reason that a similar ban on a valuable product such as ivory will produce a different outcome in China.

Let’s also not forget that although China is far and away the world’s largest ivory market, it is by no means the only one. The ivory trade remains legal in Japan, the U.S. is the world’s second-largest destination for illegal ivory, and demand in emerging markets like Vietnam, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian nations is actually going up. Unfortunately, in so many of these countries, cracking down on illegal wildlife traffickers is not a high political priority, especially since there is evidence that senior government officials themselves are actually complicit in the trade.

Weak governance on environmental and animal conservation issues is not just a problem in Asia but also in Africa, where sophisticated crime syndicates, working in collusion with corrupt officials, are believed to be behind the vast majority of elephant poaching on the continent. The inability, and in some cases unwillingness, of governments in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and elsewhere to do more to root out corruption should become the new priority in the fight to save Africa’s increasingly vulnerable elephant community.

I am personally thrilled that Chinese authorities have finally come to their senses to enact this historic policy to outlaw the sale of ivory. We should all commend President Xi Jinping and the State Council for enacting what is no doubt a controversial and difficult policy change given the significant cultural importance that ivory has had over thousands of years of Chinese history. Our celebrations, though, should be short-lived and expectations should be modest. For even in the short time that it’s taken me to write this post (less than an hour), two more elephants were violently murdered for their tusks. Long after China’s ban takes effect beginning in 2018, the killing will go on and so should the fight to save these beautiful animals.

China’s announcement that it would shut down its domestic ivory trade by the end of 2017 is arguably the greatest New Year’s gift to the world’s conservation community and those who have lobbied Beijing for years for this policy change.

Ivory is no ordinary commodity in China. Like giant pandas, ivory carvings used to be state gifts to foreign governments and the United Nations. Chopsticks made of ivory were used at official catering events honoring distinguished foreign guests. Stunning ivory artworks graced the living rooms of state guesthouses. To the Chinese ivory-carving industry, the skills to create ivory artworks are part of the Chinese culture. China’s decision to phase out the controversial trade goes far beyond conservation. The decision is indicative of a new Chinese attitude towards traditional culture, international public opinion, and an increasingly diversified Chinese society.

China’s domestic ivory trade has drawn much international criticism. For years, the ivory businesses has resorted to a cultural defense of its interests. Questioning ivory carving, in the eyes of these defenders, is tantamount to questioning Chinese culture. Beijing’s December 29 announcement is a resounding break from the cultural position. It takes courage for Beijing to take action on a product and the production skills promoted as “intangible cultural heritage.” However, the Chinese culture has long been evolving. It grew stronger by ending human sacrifice, infanticide, foot-binding, and arranged marriage, traditional practices that were once zealously defended by the country’s conservative forces. Culture is not stagnant. Culture of any country can never be a justification for practices that run counter to the common interest of humanity.

As the main destination of transnational trafficking of ivory, China has been the target of global campaigns. Foreign dignitaries, international conservation and animal protection NGOs, and concerned citizens around the world have appealed to the Chinese leaders to act for elephants. Barely 40 years ago, this kind of global pressure would have been condemned as Western cultural aggression and foreign interference. The policy change is a testament to the new receptiveness of the Chinese leadership to international public opinion. As an aspiring superpower, China needs the policy change to project its “soft power” in international politics.

Beijing’s policy change could not have happened without domestic public support. Basketball star Yao Ming has not just told the Chinese ivory collectors the truth of elephant slaughter. His towering prestige and moral messages may have silenced the most agitated defenders of the country’s ivory industry. In the last two decades, China has seen the expansion of an animal protection movement. Animal lovers are among the most vocal of the Chinese interest groups. They conducted public education, lobbied Chinese legislators, submitted petitions, and held press events to call for an end to the ivory trade. They have helped neutralize the remaining opposition to the government’s new policy. The support the government received for the new policy from the autonomous groups should have provoked a review of the role of civil society. Policy-making can no longer be the sole privilege of the Party elites. Civic groups are no threat to the authorities. They can be an important source of support for new policy initiatives.

Happy New Year to you and to the Asian and African elephants.

I was of course delighted to hear that China is banning the import of elephant ivory at the end of 2017. Let us hope that other large ivory users such as Thailand and Vietnam will do the same. And such bans must be extended to, for example, turtles and pangolins as well. In 2016, China also announced that it will pay much attention, including funds, to protecting the last tigers in China. Of course, a basic concern is that any dicta from Beijing will actually be enforced by the provinces and various business interests. Tiger products and those from other big cats, now including lion bones from Africa and jaguar bones from Latin America, continue to be illegally imported into China. However, there has been a great increase in awareness in China about nature in recent decades. Hundreds of new national parks and nature reserves have been established and local tourists flock to these to enjoy the forests and wildlife. There is a strong anti-trophy hunting sentiment as expressed in the social media and the government responds to this. During my travels around, for example, in Qinghai, the Tibet Autonomous Region, and Sichuan, I have found most local government officials well aware of the need to protect the environment and proud of what they have accomplished. Thus, I have seen great progress on behalf of conservation during the past three decades—but there remains much to be done.

The ivory ban is a very positive step as I believe China is focusing more on good governance amidst its new and growing role in Africa and is showing a genuine interest in addressing the global challenges of the future.  In the short term, poaching has had a devastating effect on the elephants. However, the ivory ban distracts from the real conversation—rapidly increasing human population,  habitat destruction and climate change that threatens all of Africa’s wildlife.

The total elephant population in Africa stands at fewer than 500,000– an incredible decline.  Gabon, which has among the largest remaining herds of forest elephants is down from about 80,000 to fewer than 40,000 today. According to the most recent elephant census, published in June 2015,  Tanzania’s Selous eco-system, had but 43,000 elephants left, down from 109,000 in 2009.   It’s the same story in the rest of the African countries that have elephants.  The few excpetions, where numbers are on the rise, are  Namibia, South Africa,  Zimbabwe, and Botswana, where elephants now number more than 130,000.

The other question is how will China prevent its legal ivory stocks from leaking into the black market?  Without strict oversight this could create a bonanza for smugglers.

China’s ivory market—the world’s largest—has become the biggest driver of the elephant poaching crisis that has decimated the African elephant population. The global ivory trade has wiped out 65 percent of African forest elephants in just 10 years, which will take these elephants nearly a century to recover.

Most stakeholders in the global conservation community, including the governments of the 37 African elephant range states, believe that all governments need to close their legal ivory markets. The existence of those markets provides an umbrella for criminal networks to sell illegally-sourced ivory, which is virtually indistinguishable from the legal product.

On December 29, 2016, the General Office of the State Council of China ordered the closure of its legal domestic ivory markets by the end of 2017. Most types of commercial ivory trade will be banned, with a sole exemption for auctions of “ivory cultural relics.” While many are celebrating this long-anticipated development, others question how effective it can be. I believe it is a game changer for elephants. The Order includes two essential directives for achieving effective enforcement that have been overlooked in much of the international coverage: coordinated law enforcement and public education.

This legally effective policy document demands inter-ministerial cooperation in making the ban a priority for intensive enforcement at the national and provincial level, across a wide range of ministries, including customs, public security, forestry, and commerce, to prioritize enforcement at international ports, transportation hubs, domestic markets and even online. In other words, across the entire ivory supply chain. Further, while law enforcement agencies previously needed to collect evidence about the source of the ivory or the exchange of money in order to prosecute a case, they will now be able to act as soon as ivory is displayed or marketed for sale.

The Chinese government also recognizes the ban won’t be effective without public support, emphasizing that the relevant ministries need to promote public education in order to resist the illegal ivory trade and “to create a favorable environment for the protection of elephants and other wild animals and plants.”

This policy represents a subtle yet substantive shift from China’s longstanding approach to wildlife, which has been insistent on the undefined mantra of “sustainable use” of wildlife. This ivory ban could portend a larger transformation in social and cultural perspectives by recognizing that there is no sustainable use of elephant ivory (or other endangered species) that can accommodate commerce, not even to promote traditional culture.

Instead of questioning its effectiveness, we encourage global communities to support China to move ahead on its commitment, strengthened by stricter on-the-ground enforcement in the African countries experiencing the devastating loss of their elephants and a commitment to crack down on this illicit trade everywhere. If and when elephant populations recover, we will be right to applaud.

We are facing a poaching crisis of African wild elephants. The African elephant population dropped from 1.3 million in 1979 to 415,000 last year. There are many reasons to account for this loss of elephants: loss of habitat, poverty in African elephant range states, weak law enforcement, poor judiciary and corruption of government officials. Excessive demand for ivory products in Asia, especially in China, contributes greatly to the poaching crisis. The problems of poverty and corruption cannot be solved overnight. If we do just one thing that may help to reverse the decline of the African elephants, it is the ban on the ivory trade in China, the biggest ivory market in the world.

In driving ecological civilization in China, the government realized that illegal trade in ivory poses a serious threat to African elephants and that the legal ivory market provided cover for illegal trade in China. As a result, China’s international reputation and image was being tarnished, which was detrimental to China’s Belt & Road Initiative and its effective participation alongside African Counties in the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). In spite of the fact that ivory carving is highly regarded as China’s intangible cultural heritage, the government took the bold step to close its legal ivory market. This is China’s leadership and contribution to the conservation of African elephants.

The recent amendments to the Wildlife Protection Law help to raise public awareness about wildlife conservation. The law gives priority to conservation rather than utilization and will help to implement the ivory ban.

In China, government policy is effective and impactful. When all ivory products are rendered illegal, most consumers are law-abiding and will not deliberately look for illegal ivory items. As a result, the demand will drop soon. One example is shark’s fin. When the government banned the consumption of shark’s fin soup at official banquets, the demand dropped immediately. Now shark’s fin demand has dropped around 80%. According to our market survey, the ivory price for both legal and illegal ivory items dropped since the political commitment was made during a visit by President Xi Jinping to Washington in September 2015.

Political commitment is clear-cut while enforcement is crucial to ensure the ban is effective. I am confident that government will apply muscle to enforce the ban and we shall continue to monitor the development and provide assistance whenever possible. It needs to be said that no government is able to completely eliminate illegal trade, whatever the commodity. An ivory trade ban will help to reduce market demand and keep illegal trade at a very low level.

One issue is that government will not buy back the legal ivory stockpile left with legal vendors. If processing and sale sites cannot liquidate the stockpile before the end of this year, then there is a reason to worry about where the stockpile will go. When the Chinese government banned the processing and sale of tiger bones in 1993, government didn't purchase or destroy the tiger bones. This problem remains unsolved today. It is imperative to address the issue of the ivory stockpile.

China’s leadership on the ban of the ivory trade will have a positive impact on neighboring countries with major ivory markets, legal or illegal. These countries should follow suit and close their respective ivory markets. We shall work to make this happen.