Is China’s Ivory Ban a Sign of Hope for Elephants?


John R. Platt, Scientific American 

Date Published

There’s a haunting but beautiful scene early in the Netflix documentary “The Ivory Game.” In Kenya, we see a herd of elephants slowly walk by the body one of their fallen brothers. As each pachyderm passes the sun-bleached skeleton, they reach out with their trunks and lovingly caress the skull on the ground, sharing in the memory of the family member they have lost. This, the documentary shows us, is a sign of elephants’ intelligence, wisdom and emotional depth, something the world is rapidly losing in the ongoing poaching crisis.

That fact gets hammered home in the very next scene as conservationists with the Big Life Foundation come across an entire family of recently slaughtered elephants. Unlike the elephant in the previous scene—which passed away due to natural causes and still had its ivory tusks attached to its skull—these elephants were killed and hacked apart by a gang of poachers. Their desiccated bodies, robbed of their ivory, are found rotting in the hot African sun.

Images such as this have become far too familiar over the past few years. Between 2007 and 2014 about 144,000 African elephants—around a third of the animals on the continent—were killed for their ivory. Much of this illegal material finds itself destined for China, where the country’s small legal ivory market—which sells ivory collected prior to the 1989 worldwide ban and from a handful of later one-off sales of stockpiles—has become a conduit for illegal ivory that clandestinely enters the legal market.

But things are changing. On December 30, China announced that it would close down its legal ivory market by the end of 2017. Is this the beginning of the end of the illegal ivory trade as well?

“This is very important for elephants,” says Hongxiang Huang, a Chinese investigative journalist and advocate participates in several undercover operations covered in “The Ivory Game.” He quickly adds, though, that he’s not sure yet how China’s ban will play out on the ground in Africa. “We don’t know yet how they will implement the ban or if the illegal trade will just go completely underground,” he says.

Meanwhile, China is just one piece of the equation. Many other countries have their own roles in the trade. Some countries need to improve their security to block illegal trafficking, while others need to address their own legal markets. “In my personal experience, there are a lot of gaps everywhere that need to be addressed,” Huang says.

For example, Japan still has an open ivory market, says James Deutsch, wildlife conservation director for Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Inc., which funded and organized the Great Elephant Census and co-produced “The Ivory Game” under its Vulcan Productions subsidiary. “We now need to find ways to encourage other countries to follow China’s lead,” Deutsch says.

Deutsch adds that “leading by example” played an important role here. He points out that recent bans on ivory sales in Hawaii, Oregon and Washington state—as well as the near-total ban on interstate ivory salesestablished by the U.S. federal government last year—may have helped China to decide that it was finally time to create their own ban after years of international pressure. “Instead of wagging a finger and saying, ‘it’s your fault China,’ we could say we’re doing this too, we’re getting our own house in order, and we invite you to join us,” he says.

That strategy may be essential for any continued progress on elephants. “I think that’s a real lesson of this entire effort,” Deutsch says. “When it comes to countries, there aren’t enemies out there. There are only prospective partners.”

This lesson, and others learned from the elephant crisis, may help other species that are currently in smugglers’ crosshairs, such as pangolins, sharks or tigers. Deutsch says the Great Elephant Census proved the value of clear data, of treating people as partners, and of building global awareness and support for a cause. “I hope that we can learn those lessons from elephants and move on not only to reversing the decline of Africa’s elephants, but also apply them more widely to wildlife species,” he says.

As for elephants, the poaching crisis so far continues unabated, but perhaps there is now some cause for hope. China closing its legal market may be the first step. Other important steps, Deutsch says, include protecting elephants on the ground, dealing with the syndicates that smuggle ivory, and addressing consumer demand for ivory.

Collectively, addressing the problem from those multiple angles could create a future for elephants where one does not seem to exist today.

There’s precedent for that. “The world succeeded at this once before,” Deutsch says, pointing out that African elephants recovered after the 1989 trade ban. “I think we can do it again,” he says.

We need to keep moving quickly, though, and continue the momentum. According to the Great Elephant Census, savanna elephant populations have fallen from 1.3 million in 1979 to around 352,000 today and continue to decline at about 8 percent a year. Meanwhile, fewer than 100,000 forest elephants remain. Neither species can withstand the slaughter for much longer.