China’s ban on ivory trading and processing has been hailed as a monumental step on the path to saving elephants from extinction. But if China does not simultaneously tackle its much larger illegal trade in ivory, the ban could perversely make it more lucrative for the poaching gangs who massacre Africa’s elephants and ship their tusks to Asia.
The number of legal businesses being shut down is relatively small. The plan, announced on 30 December by China’s central government, will close “a portion” (the Guardian understands it will be roughly half) of its 34 licensed carving factories and 130 retailers before the end of March 2017. The rest will be forced shut by the end of the year.
Ivory in those factories and retailers is not supposed to come from poached elephants – although some contraband is known to infiltrate the legal market. Instead legal ivory carvers are supplied by government-controlled stockpiles that mostly built up before an international trade ban was implemented in 1989. So the shut down will not directly stop elephants from being killed.
The major ivory market in China is black, and it has been estimated that 90% of all ivory pieces sold in China are illegal. (The percentage is less by weight because legal pieces tend to be larger and more ornate.)
In order to undermine the illicit trade, the ban aims to send a message to the Chinese public that ivory products – which embody both status and cultural values – are now taboo. This is intended to reduce demand and price. The illegal market needs big profits to operate, given the high risks of operating a multinational smuggling operation.
The strategy marks a volte-face for China’s government. In 2007, the country listed the art of ivory carving as part of its “intangible cultural heritage”, giving the practice a powerful official endorsement.
Tom Milliken, who leads the elephant programme at the wildlife trade watchdog Traffic, said the ban was overall a positive development, but that to have any impact on poaching in Africa the government would need to: prevent legal ivory stockpiles leaking into the black market, which would involve registration and regular auditing of all unsold pieces; tackle the internet trade in illegal ivory, requiring regulation of social media sites, such as WeChat, which have been shown to host open sales; prevent people buying their ivory from illegal, but poorly policed, markets in Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar, requiring regional policing efforts that has been lacking in recent years; and address the criminal syndicates,
many of them headed by Chinese nationals, that run the poaching in Africa, which would require cooperation with African countries.
If the government fails to pin back the illegal trade, the ban could land the smugglers a monopoly, said Wei Ji, an independent wildlife researcher who provides advice to the Chinese government.
Without competition from the legal market “the illegal market will go wild”, Wei warned. “A should-be-simple ivory market problem now turns into a problem like drugs or firearms, to which a legal supply is not a solution.”
Meanwhile, the basic tenet of the ban – actually closing factories and shops – will also need close attention from both inside and outside China. As Chinadialogue editor Isabel Hilton pointed out in a recent Guardian Q&A, the reach of the Beijing government into the provinces is often overestimated. “It is a recurring pattern in China that good laws can be passed but that enforcement failure can lead to unexpected results,” she said.
A phrase in the government announcement allows certified “ivory relics” to be sold in auctions “under strict monitoring after administrative approval”. Similar loopholes have been left for antiques in the UK and other countries. But the vagueness of the language raises the question of what constitutes a cultural relic. Could a newly-carved tusk considered to embody artistic traditions fall into this category?
In a blogpost, Aron White of the Environmental Investigation Agency said that this could undermine the message of the ban that ivory should no longer be a desirable product.
The question remains whether the Chinese desire for ivory will run out before Africa runs out of elephants. Overall, the ban should be positive, but it has been suggested that China is acting because of diplomatic embarrassment rather than a desire to stop elephants from becoming extinct. If so, this announcement will amount to window dressing and could ultimately benefit poachers.
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