New research measures impacts of China’s elephant ivory trade ban



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When China banned all commercial trade in elephant ivory and shuttered its domestic ivory markets at the end of 2017, conservationists applauded the measure. But they also warned that if China’s neighbors didn’t take similar action, the ivory trade would simply shift to those countries.

New research finds that those concerns were absolutely justified, though China’s ivory ban has had some decidedly positive impacts all the same.

Research released last month by WWF and TRAFFIC, the wildlife monitoring network, found that there has been a substantial decline in the number of Chinese consumers buying ivory since the ivory trade ban went into effect on December 31, 2017. 

Of the 2,000 Chinese consumers surveyed for a study titled China Ivory Consumption Research Post-Ban 2018, 14 percent claimed to have bought ivory in the past year — significantly fewer than the 31 percent of respondents who said they’d recently purchased ivory during a pre-ban survey conducted in 2017.

Chinese consumers overwhelmingly view the ban favorably, according to the survey, which found that 9 out of 10 respondents support it. Or at least, 9 out of 10 respondents said they supported the ban once they were made aware of it. 

Just 8 percent of respondents knew about the ban without having to be prompted, but that is twice the amount of awareness that existed pre-ban. These results suggest that, while word is slowly spreading, China needs to do more to increase public awareness around the ivory trade ban.

That’s especially true of the Chinese consumers who travel internationally, as the study found that 18 percent of regular travelers reported buying ivory products while abroad, particularly in Thailand and Hong Kong.

“We are seeing some positive trends in post ivory ban China that indicate the new legislative changes may be yielding positive results,” Margaret Kinnaird, Wildlife Practice Leader for WWF, said in a statement. “But persisting demand and a lack of awareness among consumers in some parts of the country as well as weak spots with insufficient regulation and enforcement means we need to redouble efforts in strengthening these areas.”

In another study, China’s Ivory Market after the Ivory Trade Ban in 2018, TRAFFIC reports that all of the formerly accredited (i.e. legal) ivory shops the group’s investigators visited in 2018 have stopped selling ivory.

But the illegal ivory trade has not been so thoroughly shut down. TRAFFIC investigators also visited 157 markets in 23 cities and found 2,812 ivory products on offer in 345 separate stores. That’s 30 percent less ivory for sale than was found in a similar 2017 survey, but still a high level of trade considering that the sale and purchase of ivory is illegal.

Ivory trafficking hotspots identified by the WWF and TRAFFIC include a handful of provincial cities like Chengdu, Chongqing, Hangzhou, and Pingxiang, as well as the city of Dongxing, which sits on China’s border with Vietnam. In fact, according to the research, those five cities were the site of more than half of all the ivory products TRAFFIC found for sale.

Sales of illegal ivory online also have yet to be eradicated, though they do appear to be in decline as well. According to the study, the average number of new ivory advertisements have decreased by nearly 27 percent on websites and close to 11 percent on social media platforms since the ban went into effect.

“We are encouraged by the decline in both trade and consumer demand since the ban went into effect, but there’s still work needed to address the persistent demand and lack of awareness among consumers in some parts of the country,” Jan Vertefeuille, who oversees WWF’s ivory work, said in a statement. “And particularly concerning is the finding that people who regularly travel outside mainland China have actually shown an increase in intent to buy ivory this year.”

Xu Ling, who coordinated WWF’s and TRAFFIC’s research efforts in China, said that the findings support the call for China’s neighbors to take steps to outlaw the ivory trade in order to safeguard a future for elephants.

“Closure of the legal ivory market is a critical tool for Chinese government efforts and sets a benchmark for other countries and regions where domestic ivory markets remain active,” Xu Ling said in a statement. “Only a united global effort will achieve the goal of stamping out ivory trafficking for the benefit of elephant conservation.”