Is China finally cracking down on its deadly trade in illegal ivory?

Dr Alice Hughes, an Associate Professor at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in southern China, has been tracking discussions in China about the country's massive trade in ivory -- a trade that has led to an epic slaughter of elephants across Africa and AsiaShe shares with us her views of recent developments there.

Mass slaughter of elephants in Kenya.

Mass slaughter of elephants in Kenya.

The history of the Chinese Ivory trade is not what might be expected by outsiders. 

In 2002 the ivory trade in China was virtually nonexistent.  However, Chinese government regulations put in place that year classed ivory trade and craft as “intangible cultural heritage”, which came to threaten the future of elephants globally.

Over the past decade, ivory prices have risen by nearly 800 percent -- and have tripled in just the last few years.  Demand in China has boomed, fed by small annual releases of seized stock and a weak licensing system -- with around 60% of licensed traders found to be in violation of the law. 

Beyond that, there are an estimated five illicit traders for every licensed trader -- leading to a profound lack of transparency that has essentially prevented trade reporting and law enforcement.

That the Chinese government announced on May 28 to “phase out” the ivory trade in China is a good omen -- with the government symbolically crushing over 600 kilograms of seized ivory in Beijing. 

But what this means in reality depends entirely on which measures to limit the domestic ivory trade will actually be implemented.

The government's announcement to halt ivory imports earlier in the year (26 February) added little to existing policies.  And for the recently announced phase-out to have a real impact will require banning all legal trade in ivory, and strict enforcement.  This is likely to be unpopular with China's growing middle class and senior officials.

Since the announcement on May 28, changes within customs and international trade procedures have commenced.  But there have been no clear statements of plans to deal with China's domestic trade.

Until China takes strong internal measures to reduce domestic supply and demand -- and develops better strategies to police its porous borders for illegal ivory -- the fate of the world's wild elephants will remain precarious.


Carnage for forest elephants

In 2001 genetic analyses confirmed what researchers in Africa had long suspected: the forest elephant is a unique species, distinct from its larger cousin, the African savanna elephant. 

That knowledge makes the current devastation of forest elephants--which live in the shrinking rainforests of Central and West Africa--all the more alarming.  In just the last decade, two-thirds of all forest elephants have been wiped out.  These animals are victims of growing human populations, the rapid proliferation of roads in African forests, and especially the burgeoning global trade in illegal ivory.

Nowhere left to hide... forest elephant in Gabon (photo by Carlton Ward).

Nowhere left to hide... forest elephant in Gabon (photo by Carlton Ward).

The only encouraging aspect of this story is growing awareness of the problem.  China is finally acknowledging and beginning to address its huge role as a consumer of illegal ivory (see our blog below) and other governments are also taking action.  For instance, the Obama administration just announced a series of anti-wildlife-crime measures, including a crackdown on illegal ivory.

For the beleaguered forest elephant, such actions are not coming a moment too soon...

China acknowledges role in global elephant slaughter

The last few years have been devastating for elephants, with a global slaughter being fueled by a burgeoning demand for ivory. China, which accounts for much of this demand, is finally beginning to acknowledge its role and take steps to limit trade in ivory products.

Time to stop the slaughter--forest elephant shot in Gabon (photo by Ralph Buij).

Time to stop the slaughter--forest elephant shot in Gabon (photo by Ralph Buij).

In this week's issue of Science, Shiyang Huang and Qiang Weng highlight the burgeoning trade in illegal ivory in China, and detail the government's efforts to combat this black market

The good news is that, despite their belated response, Chinese authorities seem to be taking the threat seriously--recently confiscating and destroying 6 tonnes of ivory. In China, a decisive government action like this could potentially send a strong signal to illegal traders that the days of open trade in 'blood ivory' are coming to an end.

These are just the first steps, as the demand for ivory in China is huge.  Let's hope the Chinese government continues to show leadership on this high-profile international issue.