China’s Ivory Trade Ban: A Silver Lining for the African Elephant?

African Elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya

On December 31, 2017, China’s domestic ivory market was officially shut down. Considering that the trade accounted for more than half of worldwide ivory consumption, Beijing´s decision is seen as turning point, warmly greeted by wildlife conservationists as a major step in combatting animal trafficking and poaching. However, the question remains whether the ban will curb the unsustainable trade in this luxury commodity.

White Gold

Ivory has long held symbolic importance in Chinese society, demonstrating both prestige and social status. The appeal of ivory remains high in China, especially in times of economic uncertainty, as it represents a profitable and relatively risk-free investment, sheltered from inflationary pressures. However, China’s thirst for ivory has fueled the slaughter of thousands of African Elephants by poachers in the last two decades. Data from Wildlife protection organization TRAFFIC, estimates the African elephant population at only 415,000 across the continent, with: “around 30,000 being poached every year to feed demand in Asia”. The price of raw ivory skyrocketed in 2014, reaching $2,100 per kg. In 2015, a census revealed that Tanzania alone had lost 60 percent of its elephant population since 2009.

China’s criminal law was amended in 2015 to abolish the death penalty for wildlife trafficking crimes. The penalties now range from three to ten years of imprisonment, with the possibility of life sentences for the most serious cases. However, laxity in law enforcement by Chinese and African authorities, is a major impediment to curbing elephant poaching. Although the 1989 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the international ivory trade, China was authorized to participate in a one-off legal sale of stockpiles in 2008. The PRC has consistently argued that the artistic and cultural importance of ivory crafting justifies the continuation of its domestic market.

A New Stance for a New Era? 

The decision to impose a new ivory ban partly stems from pressure exerted by wildlife protection organizations. Several observers have linked the rise of China’s ivory demand with the depletion of the African elephant population. According to the Elephant Action League: “about 70 percent of poached raw ivory ends up in China for domestic sale“.  At the April 2015 International Conference on Illegal Exploitation and Illicit Trade in Wild Fauna and Flora in Brazzaville, African governments urged for the adoption of stronger actions against wildlife crimes. Banning the trade of ivory thus allows Beijing to increase its clout among African states, as well as the international community, helping China to grow and diversify its “soft power”.

This is in line with the objectives of President Xi Jinping’s platform of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. The PRC has rhetorically committed itself to a long-term goal of building an “ecological civilization” and combatting ivory trafficking is a comparatively easy way to meet the criteria for a sustainable approach to development. At the 2015 FOCAC summit in Johannesburg, China pledged to protect wildlife and end trafficking. The Chinese State Forestry Administration thereupon announced the implementation of a temporary ban on ivory imports from Africa. It could be argued that this pattern of regulation strengthening, could also be linked to Xi’ anti-corruption and anti-graft campaign.

A Game Changing Decision? 

Although encouraging, this new measure will not end elephant poaching on its own. As evidenced by the unprecedented number of large-scale seizures of illegal ivory in 2016, the Chinese black market continues to thrive. Shutting down the legal market will not suffice, especially given the increasing involvement of organized crime in ivory trafficking. China’s 1993 ban on tiger and rhino parts, for instance, did not hinder the trade on the black market.

Since the ban only applies to Mainland China, shipping into Hong Kong or Taiwan will still give dealers access to the PRC’s market. One technique used by traffickers to get around legislation is to intentionally mislabel the elephant ivory as woolly mammoth ivory, of which the trade is still legal. The traffickers can then issue fraudulent certificates to smuggle ivory onto the mainland.

Although Hong Kong, a key commercial hub for China’s illegal ivory trade, has recently pledged to impose a ban of its own, this will not take effect until at least 2021. Neighboring countries such as Japan or Laos, where the trade of elephant ivory is still legal, could also serve as point of interest for Chinese imports of African ivory. Furthermore, Chinese regulations still allow for the sale of ivory antiques, creating a potential loophole that could be exploited by operators on the black market.

The End Game

If China wishes to conciliate its new ecological imperatives with the preservation of its cultural heritage, remitting ivory antiques to museums or cultural heritage protection centers might be a practicable option. Moreover, adopting a ’dual-track’ approach by not only imposing a ban but also raising popular awareness of the ivory trade and its impact will prove crucial. The Ivory-free campaign launched by WildAid and Chinese ex-NBA player, Yao Ming, is a good step in that direction.

Any improvement will require harmonized and nuanced policies from all concerned parties. In Africa, several governments including those of Botswana, Tanzania and Kenya have hailed Chinese efforts and joined in the implementation of elephant conservation initiatives. Others, however, are more skeptical.  The governments of Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia view such bans as a strain on state resources.

The change in the PRC legislation may help combat poaching in Africa, but ultimately a multilateral, sustained strategy will be necessary. That being said, China’s moves toward combating the illegal wildlife trade is definitely a step in the right direction and might encourage other more reluctant countries such as Japan or the U.K. to follow suit.