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China bans ivory, prices plummet. Will this really help save the elephants?

Co-authored by Erica Cirino

In May 2015, China’s forestry agency crushed about 1,500 pounds of confiscated elephant tusks and ivory carvings and vowed to end the country’s ivory trade. And then in September 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a joint statement with Former President Barack Obama that he was dedicated to a crackdown on the illegal ivory trade. Most recently, as we have reported, in December 2016 China announced it was indeed taking steps—including the shutdown of ivory factories and shops, and a reduction in ivory selling permits—to ban all ivory sales by the start of 2018.

Last week scientists working with conservation nonprofit Save the Elephants published a new report that suggests China is indeed making some positive progress as it strives to keep ivory out of the country and off the market: a reduction of the price of ivory by two-thirds over the past three years, from $2,100 per kilogram in 2014 to $1,100 in 2015 to $730 this February.

“The price has been dropping further in recent months with the official phase-out of legal ivory sales, raw and worked, in China meaning that licensed state and private workshops want to sell off their ivory quickly and are discounting worked ivory,” says Lucy Vigne, an ivory researcher and co-author of the report.

Vigne and her co-author Esmond Martin have been systematically collecting data on the Chinese ivory market since 2014. In this latest round of research, the two spent nearly a month in late 2015 undercover in six Chinese cities, where they spoke to ivory traders, carvers, vendors and the public about their perceptions on the carving, selling and buying of ivory goods. As part of their on-the-ground research, the pair also looked for shops in downtown areas where illegal ivory might also be sold. They also counted and recorded the price of the ivory items offered for sale, tallied the kinds of shops selling ivory. Finally, the compiled their findings with information gleaned from media, journal and book reports about China’s economic and political situation that could be affecting China’s ivory trade.

Vigne and Martin found Chinese shops most commonly sold ivory pendants, and the most unusual—and most expensive—ivory item they found was a 38-layered “magic ball” selling for $248,810 in Nanjing. In the six cities they visited this year, they found 141 illegal ivory shops selling 1,060 illegal ivory items, as well as 18 licensed outlets selling 2,318 recently carved items certified with official identification cards. They say carvers, vendors and other ivory stakeholders in China appeared “pessimistic” about their futures, and that some vendors had began replacing ivory items with replacements made from ivory substitutes, such as clam shell and mammoth ivory.

Last week China shut down 67 ivory facilities, which includes 12 of 35 ivory carving facilities and 55 of 130 ivory shops, with plans to shut down all of these facilities by 2018. Besides the closure of its ivory market, the report suggests China’s crackdown on illegal ivory and economic slowdown, as well as a general increase in awareness about elephant poaching and ivory, have helped drive the price of ivory down. That mix of events, while a detriment to the livelihoods of those in the ivory business, is precisely what needs to happen in order to help stop poaching, elephant advocates say.

“The key is about reducing consumer demand for ivory at the same time as seeking to implement a ban on trade,” says Rob Brandford, the UK director of David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. “Extensive efforts have been taking place over the last few years to educate consumers as to the truth behind the ivory they buy…tusks do not simply fall out, elephants are brutally killed for their ivory and in the process, their faces are hacked off, as up to 25% of the tusk is in their skull.”

Brandford notes that another key component to saving the lives of elephants targeted for their tusks is to stop poaching. To do this, he says Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is working with Kenya Wildlife Service to operate 11 anti-poaching units across Kenya—equipped with a fleet of five airplanes, a helicopter and a canine team—to track down and arrest poachers, and remove poachers’ snares. The Trust’s work is paying off: in Tsavo National Park alone, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust reports a 50 percent reduction in poaching from 2012 to 2016.

Many experts agree a continued, multifaceted effort in shutting down the ivory trade—using policy, law enforcement, education and poaching prevention, with a particular focus on illegal ivory—are necessary if we want to save elephants’ lives.

“China must be encouraged for doing the right thing,” says Resson Kantai Duff of Save the Elephants. “There is still a long way to go to end the excessive killing of elephants for ivory, but there is now greater hope for the species. China has shown great leadership, and deserves commendation.”

Photo by Carl Safina. Elephant calf and cattle egret.
Photo by Carl Safina. Elephant calf and cattle egret.

Comments

  1. ENV Wildlife Conservation Trust
    Warrenton, VA
    April 4, 11:39 pm

    We couldn’t agree more; ivory poaching will only end if both the supply and demand parts of the equation are firmly tackled.
    China taking the lead on this is to be applauded. But at the same time we have to acknowledge that so long as demand remains, the poachers will adopt new strategies to evade prosecution. Consequently, there is a substantial battle ahead to arrest demand, particularly within China.
    ENV Wildlife Conservation Trust is working hard in neighboring consumer and transit state, Vietnam to disrupt the flow of the ivory trade through better legislation, more effective law enforcement and public awareness raising.
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