Ending the illegal ivory trade in China requires a holistic approach


Gao Yufang, The Guardian

Date Published
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Since 2012, I have studied the China-Africa illegal elephant ivory trade, which was the subject of my master’s research at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. I remember that when I started my studies, there was much contention over the problem of ivory trafficking.

While NGOs and media organisations attributed elephant poaching to Chinese demand for ivory, Chinese authorities generally accused international groups of using unsubstantiated, exaggerated information to blame China. Participation from Chinese society was also very limited. Indeed, when I returned to do field work in the summer of 2013, the majority of Chinese conservationists, let alone the media and the general public, had little knowledge about the country’s ivory trade and its impact on African elephants.

Aiming to help provide a more comprehensive and contextual understanding of the illicit ivory trade, I examined the trends and drivers of China’s legal, illegal and “grey” – antique auctions of uncertain legality – ivory markets and analysed the complex social and policymaking processes around the issue. My research showed an intercultural collision over the framing of the twin problems of elephant poaching and ivory trafficking, as well as what to do about them. The claim-and-counterclaim dynamics reflected different perspectives, values, modes of cognitive and practical problem solving, and fundamentally, a deep underlying mistrust among stakeholders. I have since been calling for more effective arenas and means for improving cross-cultural understanding, and a broad coalition for elephant conservation.

Tremendous changes have taken place over the past few years. We have seen increasing participation and collaboration from communities in China and African countries; we have seen significant commitment from top government officials setting the issue high on the agenda; we have also seen many initiatives and programmes in progress, aimed at increasing information sharing, stakeholder engagement, and public education. All these are positive trends that should be identified and reinforced.

In one of my research papers, I unveiled that there were three different perspectives in China; “pro-trade”, “anti-illegal trade” and “anti-all trade”. Each of these standpoints shaped the identities, demands, and expectations of their holders. I concluded that up to 2013, the “anti-illegal trade” and “pro-trade” perspectives had dominated public discourse and policy, while the “anti-all-trade” was an emerging viewpoint that was gaining momentum. I wrote that “as internal and external pressures keep raising the stakes, it is not impossible that the central Chinese government will respond to the public request (a ban on domestic ivory trade) and take the ivory issue as an opportunity to address other concerns.” I think this remains relevant today.

Economically, China’s ivory industry is tiny, and culturally, the appreciation of ivory – which is predominantly used for carving rather than traditional Chinese medicine – is not as ingrained as beliefs in the healing properties of rhino horns and tiger bones. It is likely that the intensive NGO campaigns and resulting diplomatic pressures have enhanced the Chinese government’s concern about its global reputation and other national interests of higher priorities. This empowers the anti-trade groups and leads to policy change. The commitment from top leaders is key to facilitating these changes.

I believe a ban on commercial ivory trading is a significant step forward, but it is not enough to effectively combat ivory trafficking. Wildlife conservation laws and regulations in China are generally well designed with rather stringent guidelines, but they tend to suffer from inadequate implementation. Poor law enforcement is often due to unclear authorisation and accountability, ineffective coordination between the various agencies involved, and a lack of capable personnel on the ground. Regulating domestic ivory markets involves the commerce, public security, customs and forestry departments. It is vital to tackle the illegal trade in physical and online markets through effective multi-agency cooperation, regulation, and monitoring.

It should be noted that under the newly-announced law, ivory objects deemed as “cultural relics” are allowed to be auctioned, and current owners of legal ivory products can transfer them as gifts — these and other potential loopholes should be carefully regulated. Furthermore, during the grace period before the planned ban comes into effect, the markets should be closely monitored and overseen to avoid any notable changes in consumer behaviour.

Lastly, it is necessary to take a comprehensive course of action. This means encouraging market investigation and research, public awareness, changes in consumer behaviour, concrete and practical regulations, the allocation of necessary resources for implementation, enforcement and judiciary, and policy evaluation and adjustment.

China alone cannot save the African elephants. A long-term solution to elephant conservation requires concerted action and collaboration from all countries involved and addressing all the threats towards elephants, which go far beyond illegal ivory trade. The future of African elephants is in the hands of every individual who wants to see the joy and wonder of coexisting with wildlife last far into the future.