Happy New Year for elephants?

by ZSL on

With 2017 now well underway we can reflect on the announcement made by the Chinese government at the turn of the year, looking to make good on its promise to close its domestic ivory market. 

Is this news a late Christmas present for a species that has been hit so hard by illegal killing for ivory in recent times? ZSL's illegal wildlife trade specialist, Paul De Ornellas, explores.

One African elephant dies every 15 minutes due to poaching for its tusks
One African elephant dies every 25 minutes due to poaching
Why do conservationists care so much about China’s internal policy on Ivory? Global demand for ivory and ivory products is driving poaching of African elephants; poaching that saw an estimated 20,000 elephants illegally killed in 2016 alone. China is far and away the largest market for ivory globally so decisions that China makes on its ivory trade is critical for elephant conservation.

Work done by organisations like the Environmental Investigation Agency show that the Chinese domestic ivory industry; which includes 34 processing firms and 130 licensed retailers is strongly implicated in laundering of illegally sourced ivory and directly linked to poaching in Africa.The continued existence of a legal ivory trade in China has undermined global efforts to combat ivory trafficking.

The announcement

Having first announced its intention to close its domestic market in May 2015, on 28th December 2016 China released its plans to close this market in its entirety by the end of 2017.    

The announcement has been welcomed by elephant conservationists who have long argued for this step, but as ever the devil is in the detail:

The plan comes into effect quickly which is important. By way of contrast, Hong Kong has proposed a five year grace period to allow its traders to dispose of their stock, much of which will have come from illegal sources (hardly an urgent response to crack down on illicit trade). The China plan is not time bound, which is also positive, as announcing a five or ten years cessation would have sent out the message that trade was merely pausing, encouraging stockpiling of ivory for future use and incentivising those involved to be ready to trade again, and in all likelihood continue trading illicitly. 

African elephant family of three on Instant Wild
Tusks typically begin to form 6-12 months from birth

The concerns

China has a longstanding tradition of ivory carving and losing this element of their cultural heritage was a significant concern for many who argued against this step. An interesting aspect of the plan looks to address the potential impact on livelihoods and proposes to transition those currently engaged in ivory carving into working with other materials or into museums and collections where they would maintain and repair ivory artefacts.

Of most concern to conservationists is the reference to dispensation for ongoing trade in ‘cultural relics’ made of ivory – there is some debate as to whether the word used in the original announcement translates as antiques but many fear this is the case and at best it sends out an ambiguous message. Certainly UK based ivory traders think so.

In all likelihood China has millions of ivory items already in circulation, if these remain in commercial trade as ‘cultural relics’ little will change, regulation would be almost impossible and the scope for illegal sourced ivory from poached elephants to continue to enter the Chinese market is clear. How the government implement this aspect of the plan is critical. 

Another concern is that the market might shift to neighbouring jurisdictions. We already see Chinese traders dealing in wildlife products, including ivory, in Myanmar, Laos and of course Hong Kong. The major policy announcement in China will hopefully serve to inspire neighbouring countries to follow suit.

Despite these concerns the announcement from China is potentially tremendous news for elephant conservation and the Chinese government should be commended for taking this momentous step and supported in its efforts to implement the plan.

 African elephant spotted on ZSL's remote Instant wild camera traps
African elephant spotted on ZSL's remote Instant Wild camera traps

Ivory in Europe and the UK

Intriguingly, the Chinese announcement leaves countries in Europe and the UK with a decision to make – do they follow China and take steps to close their domestic ivory markets? Or do they leave themselves open to accusations that they are part of an ivory trade that undermines global efforts to combat ivory trafficking and conserve elephants? We hope that for the government of the United Kingdom it’s a simple answer, to continue to be at the forefront of efforts to combat illegal wildlife trade and close the UKs’ domestic ivory market.

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