China’s ban on the sale and processing of ivory, which came into force on Dec 31, has already begun to have an effect on businesses in the sector.
At the end of last year, the Guangzhou Daxin Ivory Carving Factory in Guangdong province employed 30 ivory carvers, but 18 were made redundant earlier this month, leaving just 12 full-time employees.
The factory is one of about 150 ivory processing and retailing facilities in the Chinese mainland that were ordered to cease operations by the end of last year.
The remaining members of staff have no work to do, but they will stay on the payroll, earning a fraction of their previous wage, until other jobs can be found for them.
The international community has hailed the ban as a move that could help to eradicate poaching and reverse the decline in the number of African elephants in the wild, estimated to be between 450,000 and 700,000. The tusks of African elephants are longer and more workable than those of their Asian counterparts, and therefore more valuable.
However, despite the ban, problems and challenges still exist.
Family Death Knell
Weng Zhanxuan, a sixth-generation ivory carver in Guangzhou, is one of the few remaining “employees” at the Guangzhou Daxin Ivory Carving Factory, but he is no longer allowed to use his skills.
Weng’s family has been making ivory balls for about 200 years.
The balls, which feature several rotatable internal layers, are carved from a single piece of ivory, and both Weng’s father and grandfather are revered as national arts and crafts masters.
The family regards the ivory ban as a personal death sentence.
“For a long time, my family has earned a humble living by carving ivory balls. We strongly believe in passing on our skills, but now we can only see the end of the line,” Weng said.
“We don’t know what will happen in the future, and no work can be done at the factory. Having nothing to do makes us feel even worse. The factory pays us 1,600 yuan ($250) a month, which is barely a living wage in Guangzhou.”
As a result, the 25-year-old plans to make a new start in Hong Kong, just an hour by bus from his home.
In July, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council announced a bill that would ban the ivory trade in 2021, but a final decision has yet to be made. That means the trade will continue in the city for at least three more years.
However, while Weng believes Hong Kong will provide a period of grace for craftsmen from the mainland, many experts and market researchers are less optimistic.
The Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department conducted a survey of the city’s ivory trade between February and April 2016.
The results revealed that the local ivory trade is effectively inactive because approximately 90 percent of the city’s reserves were purchased before 1990 and the last ivory transaction happened in 2011.
In 2016, the Hong Kong government announced that it would reduce the sale and processing of ivory, aiming to end the trade completely within five years.
Since then, the price of tusks has fallen from tens of thousands of Hong Kong dollars per kilogram to less than HK$10,000 ($1,279), according to Pong Tat-lei, a local trader.
“The mainland ban is hitting Hong Kong’s ivory traders hard because most of our clients come from the other side of the border,” he said.
“If the government maintains this approach and refuses to compensate legitimate retailers, it may boost the illegal cross-border trade because sellers will have to dispose of their stockpiles.”
According to Li Xiaojia, a senior communications officer for the Beijing office of TRAFFIC, an NGO that monitors the trade in wildlife, the possible ban in Hong Kong and heightened awareness of elephant protection programs have resulted in the city’s ivory market shrinking.
A report published in 2015 by the NGO Save the Elephants indicated that more than 30,000 products were registered in Hong Kong’s ivory market, making the city the biggest trading center in the world.
Moreover, a report published by the World Wide Fund for Nature showed that the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department impounded 33 metric tons of illicit ivory between 2000 and 2013.
“Hong Kong is a center for both ivory consumption and trading, but its role as a transition port for the international trade is overwhelming compared with its own scale of consumption,” Li said.
“I think the time difference between the bans is unlikely to result in significant growth of the legitimate trade in ivory. However, we really need to keep an eye out for a possible rise in illegal trading from the mainland to Hong Kong.”
Potential Sales Increase
Recent research commissioned by WWF and TRAFFIC found that 25 percent of regular mainland visitors to Hong Kong would still buy ivory even if the trade is banned in 2021.
“Ivory is no longer readily available in the mainland, and that has the potential to increase sales across Asia, including in Hong Kong, which is the place Chinese people visit most and a favorite destination to buy luxury goods,” said Gavin Edwards, conservation director of WWF’s Hong Kong bureau.
He added that until a complete ban is in place, it is imperative that the Hong Kong government and ivory traders inform visitors from the mainland that it is illegal to transport ivory across the border without a permit. However, many traders ignore that fact and mislead customers who want to take ivory back to the mainland.
“Moreover, they also offer customers smuggling tips. Stronger enforcement is needed by the government to ensure that ivory traders operate within the law,” he said.
According to a survey conducted by WWF and TRAFFIC in 2015-16, about 60 percent of ivory retailers in Hong Kong did not have the requisite certificates issued by the government, while 36 percent admitted misleading customers about the legality of transporting ivory to the mainland or overseas.
Rising Trade Online
“In addition to the possible illegal trade in store, we must pay greater attention to a new trend – the rise in the illegal trade in wildlife on social media and other internet platforms,” said Li, from TRAFFIC.
In July, TRAFFIC published a report about cybercrime and wildlife in China.
By monitoring 58 social media accounts, the NGO discovered that the country’s e-commerce platforms have become major channels for the sale of illegal wildlife products, with more than half of the trade related to ivory.
In November, several internet giants banded together to form the country’s first alliance dedicated to combating the illegal trade online.
Started by Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, the alliance quickly attracted other members, including platforms such as Zhuanzhuan and 58.com, which specialize in secondhand items, and others that focus on antiques, such as Cang.com and Wenwantianxia.
The members have signed a commitment to detect and remove advertisements for illegal wildlife products on their platforms, along with warning the organizations concerned and preventing them from releasing more information.
They use advanced technologies, such as big data analysis and artificial intelligence, to detect illegal trading.
“We are training our employees to identify illegal wildlife products, and also raising their awareness of wildlife cybercrime,” said Qin Qi, deputy director of Tecent’s security management department.
“We also actively assist the law enforcement agencies in investigations and prosecutions, and support other industries, particularly the logistics industry, to combat the illegal trade and raise operating costs to reduce the number of cases.”
In addition to unintended consequences such as a potential rise in illegal trading, the ivory ban has brought hardship to some employees in the sector.
During its heyday, between the 1960s and ’80s, the Beijing Ivory Carving Factory, one of the country’s largest ivory processors, employed more than 800 people.
Now, the senior artisans have retired, and there are only 10 craftsmen left, all age 40 or younger. They have each spent a decade honing their skills.
Zhang Shulan, director of the sales department, said the company has not yet been informed whether the government will provide compensation for the business lost as a result of the ban.
She noted that the State Forestry Administration, which oversees the ivory trade, has encouraged craftsmen to work animal bones and other materials, but said their skills are not transferrable because of differences in carving techniques.
The company had planned to open an ivory museum and encourage its master carvers to pass on their skills by working on pieces designed for exhibitions, not sale.
However, the ban, which covers all forms of ivory processing, meant the project had to be abandoned, along with a planned purchase of mammoth tusks for the young carvers to work on.
“The price of mammoth tusks has soared dramatically in recent months as a result of the ivory ban. This is the hardest time for the ivory sector, and we are all waiting for supportive solutions from the government,” Zhang said.