China and the Closing of the Ivory Trade


Peter Canby, The New Yorker

Date Published

On the last day of March, the State Forestry Administration, the Chinese agency that monitors the trade in elephant ivory, closed sixty-seven ivory factories and retail outlets across the country. This was the first phase of a larger plan—announced by the government of China, without fanfare, on December 30, 2016—to end the legal trade of elephant ivory within the nation altogether and thus to close the world’s largest elephant-ivory market. (By some estimates, China accounts for seventy per cent of the market for illegal ivory poached in Africa.) Under the government’s plan, the remaining ivory factories and outlets will be shuttered by the end of 2017.

Inside Africa, the effort to control the massacre of elephants has devolved into an escalating war between poachers—who are increasingly well armed and often tied to criminal syndicates—and conservationists, who, in defense of elephants, routinely deploy mercenaries, automatic weapons, advanced intelligence-gathering techniques, drones, and sniffer dogs. For all these efforts, the over-all situation of elephants has steadily worsened. In August of last year, Paul Allen’s Vulcan Foundation released the results of its Great Elephant Census, which found that the numbers of Africa’s savanna elephants had declined by almost a third between 2007 and 2014, and that only some three hundred and fifty thousand remain. Forest elephants, Africa’s other elephant species, are in even worse shape, with perhaps only eighty thousand remaining. Many people began to talk about regional extinction.

While efforts to control poaching within Africa are fundamental to preserving the species, conservationists increasingly agree that the only real way to defeat the massacre of elephants is to control demand. This has proved difficult because China, the end market of most illegal ivory, has been, until recently, reluctant to restrain its domestic ivory market.

In 2007, in the early years of the ivory boom, China listed ivory carving as an “intangible cultural heritage.” Ivory ownership became an important status symbol for the new middle class. (As the journalist and activist Hongxiang Huang explained, “If you owned an ivory piece, you’d really arrived.”) In subsequent years, the price of ivory soared, reaching twenty-one hundred dollars per kilogram, in 2014. But as prices rose the market changed. Daniel Stiles, an ivory analyst, believes that, in recent years, the ivory market in China has been driven not by the upwardly mobile middle class but by speculators betting on the extinction of elephants, which would drive prices still higher.

But, in those same years, China, too, has changed. Xi Jinping, confirmed as President in early 2013, speaks less about ivory as an intangible cultural heritage than about his ambition for China to become an “ecological civilization.” The rapacity of China’s ivory merchants and the poaching industry they supported were giving the country a bad name. Perhaps especially embarrassing was a report that, during Xi’s inaugural trip to Africa, in 2013, his political and business entourage took advantage of their diplomatic status to load his plane down with thousands of kilograms of illegal ivory.

In 2014 the government publicly destroyed six tons of confiscated ivory, and the next year the government announced that it would curtail the ivory trade, although it did not say when. All this may have been motivated, as Andrea Crosta, the executive director of the Elephant Action League, put it to me, “less by a love of elephants than by the considerable embarrassment the ivory trade has caused the nation.” But it represents change nonetheless.

Within China, President Xi’s resolve has already made a difference. Between 2014 and February of this year, the price of ivory in China dropped more than sixty per cent from its 2014 high, down to seven hundred and thirty dollars per kilogram, according to a recent report by Save the Elephants.

This may just be the bottom falling out of the speculative market, but, as Crosta said, “After all the noise the government has made, I think they’ll be serious. The government is good at shutting down what it wants to shut down.”

Does the closing of the legal trade in China mean the end of the crisis for Africa’s elephants? Unfortunately, there’s little that’s predictable about the ivory market in China. Richard Leakey, the chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service (who, in 1993, lost both legs in a suspected act of sabotage by poachers), referred to China’s plan as the “death knell for the ivory trade.” But other conservationists are not convinced. Legal ivory in China is distributed through government-licensed retail outlets and factories—the same ones that the government is now closing. But many of these outlets have, over the years, come to serve as fencing operations for greater quantities of illegal ivory. As much as ninety per cent of the ivory sold in China each year is thought to be illegal, and much of that flows through the government’s legally sponsored outlets. Conservationists fear that closing the legal outlets could lead illegal sales to migrate elsewhere, including to the Internet, where they would be more difficult to track. As Stiles recently put it in the Guardian, banning the sale of legal ivory in China could merely lead to a situation in which “the illegal ivory that consumers buy will increase from 90 to 100% of the market.”

George Wittemyer, the chair of the scientific board of Save The Elephants, said that in Kenya, where he works, prices of ivory had dropped off substantially but were still high enough to drive poaching. “The concern I hear,” he told me, “is that ivory consumption might be moving out of China to neighboring countries, with Hong Kong in particular being a problem.”

Hong Kong sells more pieces of ivory than any other city*, and ninety per cent of its customers are reportedly from mainland China. The Hong Kong government has announced that it, too, will shut down its ivory outlets—but not until 2021—and it is only beginning to negotiate details. This has led to a situation, as Crosta put it, in which “the main consuming country is supposed to stop buying ivory by the end of the year, while the main hub serving those consumers is allowed to keep operating for another four years.”

But, even if the closing of China’s markets does diminish the pressure on elephants, there are other concerns within Africa. A persistent drought tied to global warming has spread south out of the Sahel, leading to the desertification of large areas of rangeland. Jon Lee Anderson recently wrote about Kenya’s Laikipia Valley, where heavily armed pastoralists drove their herds onto conservation land, killing wildlife as they went. Witnesses reported dead elephants, buffaloes, zebras, and giraffes scattered across the landscape.

In February, the Vatican hosted a conference on biological extinction. Participants noted that one in five of the world’s species already faces extinction, and that proportion could rise to fifty per cent by the end of the century. The Cambridge University economist Sir Partha Dasgupta noted that Africa was particularly susceptible. “Africa’s population is likely to go from roughly one billion now to around four billion,” he said. “Can you imagine what tensions are going to be there, especially with climate change coming and hitting the continent more than anywhere else?”