Wildlife activists have long blamed China’s appetite for ivory as a major force driving a black market for tusks wrenched from poached elephants and other African animals.
Now, after deciding current restrictions on imported ivory haven’t done enough to protect tusked animals, the government is turning up the heat on illegal traders and threatening to shutter legitimate ivory-carving companies nationwide.
In October, the State Forestry Administration took the first step by imposing a one-year ban on imports of ivory hunting trophies, then on march 22 it said the ban would last until the end of 2019. Trophies with tusks had been previously allowed under national provisions for legitimate traders.
Since the ban took effect, data from the shopping website wwtx.com show that sales of all ivory goods in the country have fallen significantly, the wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC said on March 11.
The government’s next step could be permanent ban on almost all ivory imports, people at the forestry administration told Caixin. A ban might take effect this year.
The government is acting on a pledge for “significant and timely steps” toward ending all ivory trading that was jointly announced in September by President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama. The leaders made the announcement during Xi’s state visit to Washington.
Until now, Chinese authorities have insisted on a measured approach to fighting the black market trade. After all, they argued, more than 160 licensed businesses buy, sell and process ivory across the country. Ivory is often carved by crafts workers who make jewelry, religious statues and home decorations. It’s also powdered for traditional medicines, and purchased in unprocessed forms by investors and collectors.
Responding to a Caixin email requesting comments on its recent clampdown, the forestry administration said that through the years “China has taken strict measures to regulate the legitimate ivory-carving business while going to great lengths to fight illegal ivory trading and businesses.” The government handles these tasks through its Endangered Species Import and Export Management Office and a police agency.
Yet China has been accused of not doing enough to battle a black market that encourages big-game poaching of animals with tusks. China’s appetite is frequently cited by non-Chinese media outlets as fuel for African poachers who, extract hundreds tons of ivory from the elephants they kill.
The Geneva-based the Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) said 14,606 elephant deaths were recorded in 2015 – and half the animals estimated to have been illegally killed.
On March 21, Tanzania’s state-run Daily News newspaper reported that two Chinese men had been sentenced to 35 years each for smuggling 1.8 tons of ivory. It was said to be among the stiffest sentences ever for a case of its kind in that country. Five months earlier, a Chinese woman dubbed the “ivory queen” was charged with smuggling 706 elephant tusks worth US$ 2.5 million to China from Tanzania over 14 years.
In its email, however, the forestry administration also argued that “it’s not convincible and misleading to link China’s legal ivory processing business with a rise in elephant poaching activities.”
But information gaps appear to have long kept Chinese officials from learning very much about the ivory business in their country. Officials with the forestry administration’s import-export and police agencies who commented on condition of anonymity said the government has no database and thus no way to track cases of all illegal ivory trading.
Neither does the Chinese government have a system for monitoring the nation’s ivory market, said Yale University researcher Gao Yufang, who with colleague Susan Clark recently studied the ivory markets in Africa and China. Thus, government officials have been forced to base their understanding of the illegal and legal trades on small-scale sampling and random investigations, he said, which has sparked internal disagreements over exactly what’s going on.
That hasn’t stopped officials from sharing their opinions. One working for the government’s General Administration of Customs who asked not to be named said that while the country is not immune to illegal ivory trading, “there’s no evidence that a major percentage of the ivory from poaching has entered China.”
The customs officials added that “a large stockpile of ivory has never been found in China.”
Anyone looking for stockpiles should look no further than the animal poachers themselves, said Wang Weisheng, deputy director at the administration’s import-export agency. “Most illegally obtained elephant tusks are still in the hands of poachers and smugglers because market demand is not so great,” he said.
Major instances of poached ivory slipping into the country have been reported about every two years. In April 2011, 707 ivory tusks were found hidden in a truckload of furniture by police in Pingxiang, on the border with Vietnam. Customs officers in November 2013 said they found 11 tons of tusks mixed with lumber and copper ore in shipments arriving in Xiamen, a port city in the eastern province of Fujian.
And in October, police in the capital said they had seized nearly 1,000 kilos of ivory at warehouses in Beijing, Shandong and Shenzhen. Police arrested a trader who had been smuggling ivory into China through Japan and Hong Kong since 2009.
Some experts said these cases don’t necessarily support the arguments linking China with the rising poaching in Africa. At China Collections magazine, chief editor Chen Nian said legitimately acquired ivory is commonly used by the nation’s crafts companies, limiting illegal demand.
“There has never been a rush to collect ivory in China,” he said. “The market space for illegal ivory trading is small.”
Nevertheless, international wildlife activists, researchers, and Chinese government and business sources said China’s black market has been a magnet for ivory smugglers aiming for the highest possible prices.
Although prices have declined somewhat since 2013, in part due to the government’s drive to end extravagant gift-giving among bureaucrats, ivory market sources said prices have soared since interest in art and antique collecting started to blossom in the country in 2008.
The boom started about three years after Chinese investors started collecting ivory, said John Scanlon, secretary-general of CITES.
The Gao-Clark study found Chinese buyers of Tanzanian elephant tusks paid between US$ 250 and US$ 300 per kilo. After being smuggled into China, the price was up to US$ 2,700.
A legitimate ivory trader in China who asked not to be named said African ivory smuggled into China in recent years has been selling “for about US$ 460 per kilo, while the retail price in China has risen to more than US$ 2,300 per kilo.”
China is not the only Asian country with an appetite for ivory, but it may be the region’s price leader. Scanlon said rising prices on the country’s black market have been diverting ivory that in the past would have been shipped to Japan, where ivory demand has fallen in recent years. Tusks from Africa have been smuggled into China through Japan as well as Southeast Asia, official records show.
CITES said these records indicated that China and Southeast Asia were the main destinations for illegal ivory from 2009 to 2013.
Catching smugglers has not been easy. An police officer with the forestry administration who declined to be identified said police are vastly understaffed, with just 370 officers in the Beijing area. Given the thin enforcement ranks, it’s unclear how a complete ban on imported ivory might be imposed in the country. However, many legitimate companies that rely on ivory supplies are preparing for change.
Some experts say a ban might backfire if legitimate ivory sellers decide to take risks and join the black market. Moreover, they say, a ban may actually trigger more poaching.
Scanlon, however, said a CITES price monitoring system indicates trading in is already on the wane, and he expects elephant poaching to fall.
Several ivory business sources said that sellers of illegal products have slashed prices in hopes of clearing inventory before, as they expect, the government gets tougher. Others are sitting on supplies in hopes demand will trend higher, or that they’ll be able to skirt the ban by moving operations to a small city where enforcement is likely to be lax.
Some 34 carving and processing factories and 130 traders were licensed and operating legally across the country last year, said the forestry agency, which issues licenses and sets requirements for buying and selling all ivory products.
Nevertheless, a 2011 survey by the non-profit, Massachusetts-based International Fund for Animal Welfare said nearly 60 percent of the nation’s licensed ivory businesses have violated government rules. The group blamed lax supervision.
Zhang Li, a professor of biology at Beijing Normal University, called the licensing system for companies in the carving business “good,” but added “there are enforcement problems.”
An employee of a licensed company called the Beijing Ivory Carving Factory said some legitimate firms in his line of work buy ivory on the black market to take advantage of lower prices. Illegal ivory also may be better quality.
Much of the legally procured ivory now being carved in China’s processing plants originated with a 2008 purchase of years-old elephant tusks through a special CITES program. The Beijing factory employee said ivory from these tusks is usually poor quality.
Ivory sellers and carvers have also been trading fossilized mammoth tusks, which can be legally traded in China. Some vendors have been marketing mammoth ivory through online shopping platforms as a front for illegal elephant tusk operations.
In 2012, the forestry agency partnered with e-commerce websites such as Taobao to impose a ban on online ivory sales and promotions, a prohibition that continues.
Eventually, though, the country’s entire ivory processing sector could face extinction. Several people at the forestry agency said that ever since last year’s Xi-Obama pledge, the Chinese government has been mulling an end of the entire ivory carving industry, which could eliminate commercial demand for animal tusks in the country.