The closure of 67 ivory factories and shops in China is being celebrated in the conservation world and beyond.
In Africa, it is a major move towards ending the elephant poaching crisis.
China holds claim to the largest ivory consumer market in the world with about 70 percent of all elephant products reportedly ending up within its borders. For decades ivory was a lucrative trade in China where it is considered a symbol of wealth.
In 2016, the Chinese government pledged to ban ivory trade by the end of 2017. The closure of 55 of its 130 retail ivory stores and 12 of its 34 ivory carving factories is a step towards honoring its pledge and shutting down the entire domestic ivory market. This is a major boost in the protection of the African elephants which are facing extinction due to illicit poaching activities to feed both the legal and illegal ivory markets.
International trade of ivory was banned in 1989 but China continued to operate in domestic ivory trade which provided an opportunity for poachers to smuggle ivory into the market for years. This also contributed to the massacres and butchering of elephants in the continent.
According to Peter Knights, CEO of WildAid, the closure proves that China is committed to closing down ivory trade in the country.
Positive effects of the ban already being felt
“Seizures of ivory coming into China were down by 80% in 2016, and poaching in Kenya was last reported as 67 elephants, down from 390 elephants three years before.” Said Knights through WildAid’s official release.
The shutdown of the 67 shops and factories was witnessed by John Scanlon, Secretary General of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Scanlon acknowledged the closures as a rapid move by China to honor their pledge. “The closure of the domestic ivory market by the Chinese government affects the processing, trade, and movement of elephant ivory both within and between the provinces, which gives it extraordinary reach across the country,” said Scanlon.
The African Elephants population decline due to poaching
African elephants have suffered a great deal as poachers kill them to feed the illegal trade. Conservationists’ estimate that the population of elephants in the continent has declined significantly from about 1.2 million in the 1970’s to less than 500,000 today due to poaching and habitat loss. It is estimated that more than 30,000 elephants are killed by poachers each year for their ivory tusks.
A recent census indicated that the population of elephants in Tanzania dropped from 109,051 to just 43,330 between 2009 and 2014. That is nearly 60 percent of its elephant population due to poaching in a span of five years.
The closure of the 67 entities in China is regarded as a great message to the existing legal markets of ivory. According to Harris Taga, conservationist and Founder of Friends of Maasai Mara, in Kenya, the shutdown shows the seriousness about the issue of poaching and the declining population of the African elephants. He said that this should also spur the closure of other existing legal markets such as the United States, which is the second largest market for ivory.
Taga notes that the closure will reduce demand and in turn diminish poaching. “Soon we will see the population of our elephants increase rapidly because poachers will have no incentive to carry out illegal activities as the markets will be non-existent,” said Taga. He added that more pressure needs to be put on China to close the remaining market before the anticipated time.
“I appreciate what they have done but I wish to see much being done because the closure will cause a great change as the whole chain of illegal business will be halted at the end which is their legal market,” said Taga.
For Noela Luka, a conservationist and environmental filmmaker, the closure is a high achievement in the protection of the African elephants as the demand will decline and hence reduce the motivation for poaching. She adds that with the closure, the consumers of ivory products will appreciate that elephants need protection and are a heritage. “I believe this will create more awareness and encourage more people from China to tour and explore the beauty of live elephants with their tusks on,” she said. Noela also noted that this would positively impact millions who derive their source of livelihood from elephants through tourism.
However, she added that China’s actions should not only include shops and factories but other merchants who deal in ivory and ivory products. “I have friends from China and from them I have learned that they also have open markets where vendors sell illegal wildlife products and for the ban to have an impact, such markets have to close too,” she added.
China’s journey towards the ban
The journey to end the ivory trade in China began in May 2015 when China’s forestry agency crushed about 680 kilograms of seized elephant tusks and ivory carvings. In September the same year, Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a joint statement with former US President Barack Obama and stated his commitment to a clampdown on the illegal ivory trade. In December 2016 China announced it was taking steps to shut down ivory factories and shops, and reduce ivory selling permits to a total ban on all ivory sales by the end of 2017.
Falling prices of ivory and ivory products
The relentless pressure on China to end their legal ivory market has also had an effect on its price. The falling prices reflect a decrease in demand for ivory. Recent research released by Save the Elephants found that the price of ivory in China has fallen by nearly two-thirds in the last three years.
The report done by Save the Elephants researchers Lucy Vigne and Esmond Martin found that the wholesale price of ivory tusks in China had fallen significantly. The average wholesale price of tusks in China was $2,100 per kilogram in early 2014 but had dropped to $1,100 by late 2015, before reaching $730 in February 2017.
Public awareness in China a boost in the fight against poaching
According to the investigation, some retail outlets have already closed due to slow sales. They attribute the price drop to several influences including an economic slowdown; a crackdown on corruption as ivory items are often used to buy favors with officials; public awareness campaigns about poaching; the government’s commitment to close the trade. “Public education campaigns have exposed many potential buyers to the impact that buying ivory has on Africa’s elephants,” the organization said in its press release.
The two researchers have been collecting data on the Chinese ivory market since 2014. In 2015 the two spent close to two months 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.
The closure brings greater hope for African elephants
Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Save the Elephants President and founder said even though it might still be a long way to go to end the unnecessary killing of elephants, the closure and price drop of ivory in China brings greater hope for elephants. “This is a critical period for elephants. With the end of the legal ivory trade in China, the survival chances for elephants have distinctly improved,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton.
For Harris Taga, the drop in price is a good indicator that their efforts as conservationists are bearing fruits. He stated that the changing dynamic would reduce demand and supply and in turn stop the senseless killings of elephants. “This is a great moment for organizations and individuals that have been advocating for the ban and protection of the majestic giants,” he said. The conservationist noted that ivory is more valuable on an elephant than it is as a carving and urged African governments to take the lead in calling for protection of wildlife in the continent.
The conservationists optimistic about the closure
It is still uncertain of how the closure of the legal market in China will affect the illegal trade in ivory. International trade in ivory was banned in 1989, but poaching activities continued and even hastened in recent years, feeding a black market controlled by criminal gangs. However, conservationists are optimistic this will have a positive impact as the legal market in China is believed to be one of the primary drivers of elephant poaching in the continent.
Figures released in March by CITES on the ‘2016 trends in the poaching of African elephants,’ the African elephant is listed as vulnerable to extinction. The report shows the steady increase in the levels of illegal killing of elephants seen since 2006, which peaked in 2011 and has been halted and stabilized today, but at levels that remain unacceptably high. The ivory demand in Chinese markets has driven a decade-long spike in elephant poaching in Africa, and the closure of it is a reprieve to the African elephants which are almost going extinct.