Asia

China outlaws elephant ivory trade but worries remain over black market

A man checks a tusk at an ivory workshop in Beijing, China, March 31, 2017.

A man checks a tusk at an ivory workshop in Beijing, China, March 31, 2017.  (REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Animal rights activists are praising China’s announcement that it will ban the sale and trade of ivory by the end of 2017, but the news has also raised concerns that it will drive a much-maligned business further onto the black market.

Beijing officials said that by the time stores close on Friday almost half the country’s official ivory factories and shops will have locked their doors for good, with the rest of the 34 factories and 138 shops following by the end of the year. The U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has sent a team of experts to China to oversee the process.

"I am very proud of my country for showing this leadership that will help ensure that elephants have a fighting chance to beat extinction," Aili Kang, executive director of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Asia, told the BBC.

More on this...

China is the world’s largest market for the controversial material – it is estimated that seven out of every 10 pieces of ivory in the world ends up for sale there -- and has been facing international pressure since there was an international ban on the trade and sale of ivory was implemented in 1989. U.S. and Chinese officials in 2015 began negotiating an end to China's domestic ivory trade.

The majority of the ivory in China comes from elephant poachers who sell the animal’s tusks on the black market for huge amounts of money. While ivory is used in a number of nations across the globe it is particularly popular in China where it is used in everything from jewelry and ornaments to traditional medicines.

It appears that the ban on the ivory trade is also getting an unexpected boost from an unlikely source: Chinese consumers. A new report from animal rights group Save the Elephants found that China’s hunger for ivory has recently declined and this in turn has seen the price of the material drop precipitously.

In early 2014 the wholesale price for ivory was $2,100 per kilogram, but by last month the price had dropped to $730 per kilogram.

There is still a long way to go to end the excessive killing of elephants for ivory, but there is not greater hope for the species.

- Save the Elephants President Iain Douglas-Hamilton

"An economic slowdown has resulted in fewer people able to afford luxury goods; a crack-down on corruption is dissuading business people from buying expensive ivory items as 'favors' for government officials, and the Chinese government has made a strong commitment to close down the nation's legal ivory trade," Save the Elephants said in its report.

Despite the moves from Beijing and the drop in prices, there is still a major loophole to obtaining the luxury good because Hong Kong allows ivory that originated before the international ban to be imported into the city. Hong Kong is a major feeder market to mainland China, with more than 90 percent of ivory customers coming from the Chinese mainland. Many of whom sell the material on the country’s shadowy black market.

The Save the Elephants report noted that it is unclear how China’s new ban will affect the underground ivory trade, but illegal traders of ivory told researchers that they were not too concerned about the new regulations.

"Will demand for illicit ivory items go up or down?" the report states. "Will prices rise or fall? Will carvers continue to produce ivory items in larger or smaller quantities illegally?"

Despite the uncertainties surrounding Hong Kong and the underground trade, activists believe China’s ban is a promising start, especially considering recent reports that between 2007 and 2014, the African elephant population decreased by nearly a third due mostly to poaching.

"With the end of the legal ivory trade in China, the survival chances for elephants have distinctly improved," Save the Elephants President Iain Douglas-Hamilton told NPR. "We must give credit to China for having done the right thing by closing the ivory trade. There is still a long way to go to end the excessive killing of elephants for ivory, but there is not greater hope for the species."