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Officials in the world’s largest ivory market naturally beamed when they banned all sales of the precious elephant tusks effective Dec. 31. The country where ivory is a status symbol had long driven elephant poaching in Africa. In 2015 it began phasing in bans on sales.
Demand for ivory had killed 100,000 African elephants over three years from 2010 to 2012 and 64% of African elephants over a decade, National Geographic reports.
Black market haven
But China may linger as an elephant in the room during future discussions about poaching for tusks. The country has the world’s biggest population, fast growing wealth and a fascination for stuff made of ivory.
The ban effective now might remove enough ivory to stop consumers from wanting it, says Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia regional director with the nonprofit advocacy group International Fund for Animal Welfare. “I believe 99% of the consumers are law abiding citizens,” Ge says for this report. “They will not actively look for illegal products to buy. Most people have no desire for ivory.”
Consumers in China had sought in the past carved ivory artwork and, if not affordable, smaller goods such as chopsticks. You had the investors, too. They explain why around 2011, stores would run out of stock as soon as they got it. After China announced its ivory trade ban in December 2016, prices came down and in turn reduced demand for elephant poaching. Poaching has fallen since 2012.
Living with a grey market
But Chinese had grown used to a grey market for ivory. Over the past 10 years, when some types of ivory was legal and others forbidden, the market “confused consumers and created enforcement challenges,” Ge says. Criminals used the grey market to launder ivory from poached elephants, she says. Consumers might still be confused if they see ivory around, figuring it’s OK rather than outright illegal.
A remaining grey area: the pricey horns of another big grey animal, the rhinoceros, are still being sold in China, advocacy group Save the Rhino says. China became “more active” in buying horns in the 1990s, largely for medicinal use, it says. Chinese buying has contributed to rhino poaching in South Africa. “China continues to be of concern as a rhino horn user country,” the advocacy group says on its website, citing “more varied avenues for illegal trade” due to the rise of private business.
China’s ban on ivory follows pressure from the United Nations that had motivated other countries to stamp out their own trading, anti-wildlife trade advocacy group WildAid says on its website. Japan is the only place that still allows ivory sales, though it’s getting stricter.
In case China’s ban isn’t taken seriously, WildAid is teaching Chinese consumers about it. It has picked former NBA star Yao Ming, a Chinese national whose name is widely known in his homeland, to start in a related video and billboard campaign.
Illegal networks already in place
China remains at risk of continued sales of ivory despite the ban, said Tom Milliken, elephant and rhino program leader with the conservation group TRAFFIC. Some of it enters China through border trade. Buyers and sellers connected on social media move ivory in secret, he adds.
“The new policy change is hugely important and needs to be fully embraced,” Milliken says. “But China’s ivory trade ban will ultimately be as effective as the commensurate law enforcement and implementation action directed towards a host of outstanding and emerging issues that facilitate illegal trade.”