Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, says, “Although half a world away, China holds the key to the future of the African elephant” (“Price”). This seems pessimistic, considering African’s elephant countries have (with international help) stopped some poaching. On the other hand, if Chinese officials and citizens tried harder, they could save a lot more elephants.
China has done some things to stop poaching. In 2011, China banned the live auction of ivory, and in 2012, it tightened control over the physical black market shops. In 2014, it destroyed 6.1 tons (5,550 kg) of ivory, and in 2015, crushed another 1,500 tons (662 kg). Also in 2015, China imposed a one-year ban on the import of carved ivory (Russo; "U.S.," “Three”).
Then, late in 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to former President Obama that China would “take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory” (Neme, “Three”).
Finally, in December 2016, the Chinese government announced that it will close the sale of legal ivory. (Legal ivory includes any ivory that entered China before 1989 or that the Chinese government bought from Africa.)
The new ban will close about half of China's legal ivory carving factories and retail outlets by March 31, 2107, and the other half by the end of 2017.
This means the Chinese government will no longer sell the ivory that it owns to Chinese factories, and that any ivory already sold to factories or retailers may no longer be sold forward. Thus, the certificates that the Chinese government attaches to each piece of legal ivory – certificates that have been illegally re-used to justify the sale of thousands of pieces of poached ivory – will no longer be recognized. Therefore, the people who own illegal tusks or carvings will no longer be able to sell them openly. They will be forced to go underground, where they can still sell but with more difficulty. This is great news for elephants.
Not a Total Shutdown
Although many news outlets have called China's new ban on ivory sales a “shutdown,” there are enough loopholes to allow for plenty of continued sales.
First, the Chinese government stated that it will move some of the ivory that is sitting in legal factories and stores into museums and cultural centers. However, most of the ivory will not go to museums. In China, ivory is carved into intricate artwork that sells for thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands, of dollars. The idea that artists and store owners will simply give up valuable art to museums is crazy.
The Chinese government has also implied that it will register and track the legal ivory that is sitting in factories and storefronts. This is impossible. By announcing in December that it would close stores in March and the following December, the government has given the current owners plenty of time to hide their ivory. The fact is that most ivory will move into hiding, or into the underground market.
Without a doubt, the new ban in China will lead to increased black market sales. First, the black market in the distant Chinese provinces will boom, since the provinces often ignore the laws that Beijing produces, and the central government lacks the ability to enforce its laws far from city center. Second, the black market will boom in Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar, since these countries are poorly policed. Finally, the new ban will lead to increased activity on WeChat, a popular social media site which hosts open ivory sales.
Another concern is that the Chinese government has said some “ivory relics” may still be “certified” and sold in legal auctions. The vagueness of this wording could mean that a newly poached piece of ivory that is carved into a national symbol could be considered an ivory relic. Since there is no clarity on which raw ivory or carved ivory may become a relic, people will continue to horde ivory for its potential future value.
In addition, the Chinese government has said that the registered ivory relics will be sold “under strict monitoring and administrative approval.” With its past monitoring system (the certificate system), China has already proven that it cannot control a registry, and that illegal tusks can be passed off as legal. Therefore, artisans, collectors and poachers may see a green light that encourages continued poaching and sales.
The Chinese government has also said that people who own ivory may give it away as gifts. Although this may seem harmless to Americans, most of whom do not own highly valuable ivory, it offers a large opportunity in China. The carved ivory in China is made into intricate artwork that has great financial value. These pieces are traded like stocks. By using the term “gift,” individuals and companies will use ivory as payment for services and as bribes.
Finally, the biggest concern is that the Chinese government has many tons of raw tusks sitting in warehouses, and it has made no commitment to destroying it. This is a signal to the Chinese people (and the people killing elephants in Africa) that the Chinese government is not totally committed to stopping ivory sales, and that one day, ivory may be legal again. This alone will keep the illegal market and poaching alive.
(Nobody knows how many tons of ivory the Chinese government still owns. Estimates range from 20 to 40 tons.)
The Road Ahead
If Chinese officials truly mean to stop all sales of ivory, legal and illegal, they face many hurdles.
First, the Chinese people may not understand the importance of stopping ivory sales. In 2007 a conservation group’s survey that found that “70 percent of Chinese people didn’t know elephants are killed to harvest ivory” (Swain). Apparently the Chinese people thought the tusks fall out of the mouth the way other teeth fall out. In 2015 another survey showed that 79% of the Chinese people said they would support a total ban on ivory sales, yet 56% said they would like to buy some (Bale, “U.S.”). This indicates that although the Chinese public may understand the need to ban the ivory trade, they may not follow a ban.
Another reason it would be hard to stop the ivory trade inside China is that as recently as 2006, the Chinese authorities were encouraging the general population to buy carved ivory. The government had “started to recognize the importance of protecting traditional culture, and there were lots of initiatives launched to protect this, and ivory carving" was one (Russo). Now, as a result of the government’s efforts, the Chinese people think buying ivory is not only acceptable, but a patriotic act.
Closing the many ivory markets in China would be a massive undertaking. Besides the 184 legal sales and repair shops, there are hundreds of illegal shops, several illegal live auctions such as WeChat, and the online Baidu Post Bar, where ivory traders post photos using labels such as “white plastic” (Russo). In order to stop the entire domestic trade, the Chinese government would have to attack many markets in many ways.