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China bans ivory, offering new hope for elephants

Co-authored by Erica Cirino

Every fifteen minutes an elephant is murdered so that someone somewhere can buy an ivory bracelet, carving, or some trinket that humans and elephants both could live without.

Last fall the world’s nations met in Johannesburg to decide on trade policies for endangered wild animals and plants. One debate topic loomed particularly large: African elephants.

Many nations favored an outright ban on trading ivory, including 29 nations in Africa, as well as China. But after days of intense arguing—as we’ve written about previously, the world’s nations failed to agree on a simple ban.

Photo by Carl Safina. Elephants at a watering hole in Kenya.
Photo by Carl Safina. Elephants at a watering hole in Kenya.

China’s support was particularly noteworthy. After a successful global ban in 1990 caused ivory prices to collapse and elephants to begin recovering, China was allowed in 2008 to resume ivory imports. Almost immediately China’s demand for ivory ignited the current poaching crisis.

On December 30, 2016, China made a major announcement: it will ban essentially all ivory sales. If successfully enforced—China has thriving black markets—demand for ivory could plummet and elephant killing could drop enough to allow beleaguered elephant populations to begin recovering. China’s announcement follows an announced temporary ban last spring, and the United States’ enactment of a similar near-complete ivory ban last summer.

The U.S. State Department welcomed China’s announcement, saying, “It sets an ambitious, but achievable, timetable to enact a near-total ban on domestic commercial sales of ivory by December 31, 2017.” The United States and China have worked closely on structuring their respective bans to help close two of the world’s largest markets for ivory sales.

China’s ban would take place in steps, according to China’s State Council. It will shut down its 34 ivory processing centers and 143 approved ivory trading centers by March 2017. China’s Ministry of Culture will help verify legal ivory in museums and also help workers involved in the ivory industry—such as sellers and master carvers—find alternative jobs. People who already own legal ivory products will be permitted to keep them or give them away as gifts or, with state approval, sell then at auctions.

Elephant conservationist and resident scientist at the Amboseli Elephant Research Project Dr. Vicki Fishlock,  says China’s ban, if enforced, could  be effective in stopping the flow of ivory.
“Banning all trade will make all ivory illegal, sending a strong message to consumers and affecting the price,” says Fishlock. “The 1989 [world-wide] ban caused ivory prices to plummet, collapsing the illegal market and removing the profit in trafficking or procuring ivory and in killing elephants.”

Photo by Carl Safina. Vicki Fishlock at work in Kenya.
Photo by Carl Safina. Vicki Fishlock at work in Kenya.

China is the world’s biggest consumer of ivory, with an estimated 70 percent of all ivory bought in that country. Yet China isn’t the only place where ivory is bought, sold and processed. Fishlock hopes China’s ban might prompt other ivory consuming countries such as Thailand and Vietnam to enact similar ivory bans.

While countries around the world deliberate on ivory restrictions, in the meantime, elephants continue to be killed; their faces hacked up, their tusks whisked away and their bodies left to rot. A recent survey by the Great Elephant Census has found just 352,271 African elephants–representing 93 percent of Africa’s total elephant population–remain living in 18 African nations. That’s a 30 percent population loss in just three years.

The loss of elephants, an acute tragedy on its own, can be catastrophic for proper functioning of savanna ecosystems. Rhinos, whose horns are taken for ornaments and “medicine,” have also collapsed in many places.

“Elephants and rhinos don’t belong to poachers,” says Fishlock. “They don’t belong in display cabinets. They belong in their social groups, their families, which are inspiring and amazing and a key component of healthy ecosystems… on which we all depend.”

So, fingers crossed that China is serious, and will effectively enforce their announced ban. We are all counting on it.

Photo by Carl Safina. An enormous male elephant, right, with female. His large tusks put him at a high risk of being killed by poachers.
Photo by Carl Safina. An enormous male elephant, right, with female. His large tusks put him at a high risk of being killed by poachers.

Comments

  1. Trent Grasso
    United States
    February 9, 7:40 pm

    Anyone know where the actual government notice can be found? I want it for research but have been unable to find it anywhere on the internet.

  2. Catherine Hammond
    Ann Arbor, MI
    January 15, 10:08 am

    Although China’s new ban on ivory sales is great news for elephants, there are loopholes which could create a quasi-market. For example, the Chinese government says some “ivory relics” may still be “certified” and sold. The vague wording gives the Chinese government the chance to commission artists to create legal “relics,” which could create a small market in which the government’s remaining tusks would be more valuable than other tusks.

    The vagueness could also mean that a newly poached tusk, carved into a national symbol, could be considered a relic and then sold, which would encourage people to continue collecting ivory.

    Another problem is that the Chinese government plans to sell registered relics “under strict monitoring and administrative approval.” Since China has already proven it cannot control a registry, ivory lovers and poachers may find yet another way to buy and sell.

    The Chinese government has also announced that people may continue to give ivory as gifts. Although this seems harmless to westerners, in China, artists carve ivory into intricate pieces with great financial value. Pieces are bought and sold like stocks. By using the term “gift,” people will be able to use ivory as payment and bribes.

    In addition to keeping a small legal market with potential hazards, China will soon be facing a booming underground market. The ivory in the soon-to-be defunct factories and shops will need to be bought and sold somewhere. The hundred or so authorized ivory repair shops (that are staying open because people are still allowed to own ivory) will become fertile trading grounds. Secret markets in distant Chinese provinces where the central government has little oversight will grow. The market will increase in Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar, countries with poor policing, and on WeChat and Baidu Post Bar, internet sites with open ivory sales.

    Most importantly, no country is completely closed to an ivory market when its government keeps tons of raw tusks sitting in a warehouse with no promise to destroy them. Harboring twenty to forty tons of tusks is a signal to the Chinese people (and to the people who are killing elephants in Africa) that one day, the Chinese ivory trade may be legal again. This alone will keep the underground market alive and poachers in the bush with their guns.

    For more information, please go to http://www.NoMorePoaching.com.

  3. Catherine Hammond
    Ann Arbor, MI
    January 15, 10:06 am

    For more information, please go to http://www.NoMorePoaching.com.

  4. Catherine Hammond
    Ann Arbor, MI
    January 15, 10:05 am

    Although China’s new ban on ivory sales is great news for elephants, there are loopholes which could create a quasi-market. For example, the Chinese government says some “ivory relics” may still be “certified” and sold. The vague wording gives the Chinese government the chance to commission artists to create legal “relics,” which could create a small market in which the government’s remaining tusks would be more valuable than other tusks.

    The vagueness could also mean that a newly poached tusk, carved into a national symbol, could be considered a relic and then sold, which would encourage people to continue collecting ivory.

    Another problem is that the Chinese government plans to sell registered relics “under strict monitoring and administrative approval.” Since China has already proven it cannot control a registry, ivory lovers and poachers may find yet another way to buy and sell.

    The Chinese government has also announced that people may continue to give ivory as gifts. Although this seems harmless to westerners, in China, artists carve ivory into intricate pieces with great financial value. Pieces are bought and sold like stocks. By using the term “gift,” people will be able to use ivory as payment and bribes.

    In addition to keeping a small legal market with potential hazards, China will soon be facing a booming underground market. The ivory in the soon-to-be defunct factories and shops will need to be bought and sold somewhere. The hundred or so authorized ivory repair shops (that are staying open because people are still allowed to own ivory) will become fertile trading grounds. Secret markets in distant Chinese provinces where the central government has little oversight will grow. The market will increase in Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar, countries with poor policing, and on WeChat and Baidu Post Bar, internet sites with open ivory sales.

    Most importantly, no country is completely closed to an ivory market when its government keeps tons of raw tusks sitting in a warehouse with no promise to destroy them. Harboring twenty to forty tons of tusks is a signal to the Chinese people (and to the people who are killing elephants in Africa) that one day, the Chinese ivory trade may be legal again. This alone will keep the underground market alive and poachers in the bush with their guns.

  5. Bishop Manasseh Ole Mankuleiyo
    Kenya/USA
    January 13, 7:26 am

    Bishop Manasseh P. Mankuleiyo OH MY !!! PLEASE LET IT BE TRUE!!…. THAT WOULD BE 2017’s BEST NEWS

  6. Victoria Leigh Thorpe
    Tuttle, Oklahoma, USA
    January 12, 3:04 pm

    Yea, get a vision for wht onyx or something, and leave these poor elephants alone.