New research shows Myanmar’s Growing Illegal Ivory Trade with China

Date Published

Increased amounts of ivory are flowing into China from Myanmar, according to a new publication by Save the Elephants.

The report ‘Myanmar’s Growing Illegal Ivory Trade with China’ released today (subs: October 2, 2018) shows that one town in particular, Mong La – a frontier town in the notorious Golden Triangle on the border of China – has experienced a ‘prolific growth’ in ivory trading. The number of new ivory items seen for sale  in the town grew by 63% in three years, and now accounts for over a third of the ivory seen in the country.

The report by ivory trade specialists Lucy Vigne and Esmond Martin recounts how Chinese visitors smuggle worked ivory from Mong La back home with little concern about getting caught. This ivory has often come up the Mekong River into the lawless eastern periphery of Myanmar where it is for sale in both retail and bulk. The wholesale price for African raw ivory in late 2017 in the Golden Triangle region has remained stable at about USD 770 to USD 800 per kg since late 2015.

Myanmar has the largest captive, or ‘domestic’, elephant population in the world with over 5,000 individuals. Traders there say that the internal ivory trade is legal for trimmed domestic elephant tusk tips and from licensed animals that have died, and operate accordingly. (Trading in the tusks of the remaining wild elephants in Myanmar – numbering perhaps 2,000 – is acknowledged to be illegal). The ivory from captive elephants is used for local carving and retail sale especially in Mandalay and Yangon. Their tusks are also sold wholesale in Mandalay to Chinese traders, who smuggle them across the China border in contravention of the existing international ivory trade ban.

Traders reported that 90% of buyers were Chinese wishing to smuggle the ivory home, as also found by the same authors in market surveys in Hong Kong (2015) and Laos (2017). In Vietnam (2016) this was estimated to be 75%.

Poaching is a problem for elephants in Myanmar but the country also provides a largely unchecked conduit for illegal African ivory carved in the region to be smuggled into China, in violation of International Law. The authorities are not deterring ivory smugglers and trade in ivory and other endangered wildlife products that is running riot to meet the continued Chinese demand.” says Lucy Vigne, the lead author of the report. 

The researchers found five towns and cities (of eight visited) with 51 shops openly displaying 14,846 ivory items for sale. These were Mong La, Mandalay, Yangon, Tachileik and Bagan.  In Mong La, ten open Chinese shops were counted, nearly all specializing in selling ivory, displaying 5,279 recently-made ivory items. Of these, 2,467 (mostly large pendants stacked like dominoes on wall shelves in transparent plastic wrapping) appeared to be newly arrived. The figures show a soaring 63% increase from a comparable TRAFFIC survey conducted in 2013/2014 which found 3,302 ivory items for sale.

Around 10 Myanmar ivory carvers remain active in Mandalay, with fewer in Yangon. Most still use simple hand tools, while a few may use electric drills. In Mong La, a computer-driven machine in one shop enables Chinese artisans to mass produce decorative ivory items. These items are in more demand by Chinese buyers than ‘unfashionable’ traditional Myanmar ivory carvings, with Myanmar carvers complaining of slow sales of this apparently legal product in the past two or three years.

In contrast most ivory items preferred by the Chinese – small trinkets that can be easily smuggled across the border –  had significantly increased in price. Bangles, the most popular, had soared 600% to an average of US$444 in 2017, up from US$61 in 2002. Similar increases were seen for chopsticks, cigarette holders and name seals. The researchers also saw intricate carvings and figurines that appeared to have been smuggled in from China where sales are now illegal following the introduction of the country’s domestic ivory ban.

“This new study from Vigne and Martin shows the scale of the challenge that remains for elephants in the face of the ivory trade. Despite great political commitment from the Chinese government and the moral leadership of influential citizens it will take continued united action to end the issue. China’s new laws have to be rigorously enforced, borders must be controlled and everyone must be made aware of the terrible consequences of buying ivory,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Founder of Save the Elephants.

Key findings from the survey, conducted in late 2017:

  • Ivory items were found on display in five towns and cities out of eight visited, with 51 shops openly displaying 14,846 ivory items for sale.
  • Vendors stated that Chinese customers buy about 90% of what they sell.
  • The illegal ivory trade in Mong La on the Chinese border soared by 63% increase in three years. In late 2017 there were ten shops open with 5,279 recently-made ivory items openly for sale. A TRAFFIC survey in 2013/2014 found 3,302 worked ivory items.
  • While traders claim that much of the worked ivory on sale has been crafted by Myanmar carvers, from Myanmar’s elephants, over a third of the ivory items seen were in shops in Mong La on the China border, and appeared to be from African elephants.
  • According to ivory dealers, domestic trade in licensed ivory from Myanmar’s captive elephants (trimmed tusk tips and from animals that have died) is legal. This is contested by at least one organisations in Myanmar. The trade in tusks from Myanmar’s wild elephants is illegal.
  • Larger raw tusks from Myanmar’s male elephants are sometimes sold in Mandalay to Chinese buyers and smuggled across the Chinese border, in contravention of the CITES ban.
  • Raw tusks of Myanmar elephants were selling wholesale for local carving at an average of USD 961/kg.
  • The wholesale price for African raw ivory in the Golden Triangle region was about USD 770–800/kg. The price appears to have remained stable since late 2015.

This report is dedicated to the memory of consultant Esmond Martin who was killed on 4th February 2018.

The report, ‘Myanmar’s Growing Illegal Ivory Trade with China’, was funded by the Elephant Crisis Fund and published by Save The Elephants.

For more information:


Lucy Vigne, ivory researcher, tel: +254 722 411 037
Email: [email protected]

Save The Elephants +254 727 276 409
Email: [email protected]

About Save The Elephants (

Save The Elephants works to secure a future for elephants in Africa.  Specializing in elephant research, STE provides scientific insights into elephant behaviour, intelligence, and long-distance movements and applies them to the challenges of elephant survival. To battle the current surge in ivory poaching, our Elephant Crisis Fund is identifying and supporting the most effective partners in Africa and in the ivory consuming nations to stop poaching, thwart illegal traffickers and end demand for blood-stained ivory.