When Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in September 2015 that China would, together with the United States, work toward a complete domestic ban on ivory, it was a welcome step in the fight against elephant poaching. Yet it was also only the first step in a long road. Now comes the difficult process of deciding how to make the ban happen.
Ivory from the slaughter of some 30,000 elephants a year often winds up in the key markets of China and the U.S. A 2014 report found that China is the largest importer of illegal elephant tusks in the world, based on seized shipments.
Because this contraband finds its way into China’s legal ivory market, shutting it down completely is seen as a vital step toward eliminating the illegal killing of elephants.
“There are a lot of things that need to be addressed before a ban is implemented,” says Aster Zhang, a wildlife biologist and professor at Beijing Normal University.
Now, a group of Chinese researchers from several disciplines have come together as an expert working group to assess options and make recommendations to the government. They’ll examine different possibilities for the form and timing of a ban and how to promote compliance.
“It’s unique because it’s done by Chinese themselves,” says Aili Kang, Asia director of the Wildlife Conservation Society, a global nonprofit organization headquartered in New York City. “This is crucial if you want any impact on the central government process.”
The working group is supported by the Science for Nature and People Partnership, or SNAP, a collaboration among the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Nature Conservancy, and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. SNAP gathers specialists from a broad range of disciplines to undertake science-based analysis to tackle high-profile problems.
Zhang and Kang are the joint principal investigators of the ivory working group, which includes Chinese researchers from leading universities, such as Beijing Normal University, Sun Yat-Sen University, People’s University, the Environment Policy Department of Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning (CAEP), and Wuhan University, as well as several international experts.
The researchers aim to have initial results and recommendations to share with delegates to the National People’s Congress (China’s legislature) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a political advisory body, in March 2016.
"That's when the government will develop or discuss important policies," Kang says, adding that “there’s a lot of concern about how to implement a ban.”
One concern is how to reduce the impact of closing such a culturally significant market. “In China, we do have a big ivory market—it’s not simple to shut it down,” Zhang says. “Ivory carving has a 3,000-year history. It’s in our culture. So we need to find a way to balance culture preservation and future populations.”
The Business of Ivory Carving
According to Zhang, China has 30 registered ivory carving companies and 130 registered ivory retail companies, which together employ about 3,000 workers. Further, China has a certification system for legal ivory, with items over 50 grams (just under two ounces) having their own photo identification.
Zhang and his university team are in the process of doing on-site surveys of these companies to gather information about the number and value of ivory items sold each year, the annual income of the companies, their staffing levels, and alternative products they could make. The researchers also want to find out what the companies think about a ban. So far, they’ve visited 72 companies and plan to take in ten more by the end of the year.
The working group will use this information to analyze the feasibility of providing compensation to the industry.
The group is also examining timing options, as there’s concern that if the gap between the announcement of a ban and its implementation is too long, it will trigger speculation and stockpiling of ivory, which in turn could lead to ivory prices spiraling higher. And that could spur more elephant poaching.
“There’s a theory that speculation is already an important factor driving demand,” says Jonathan Barzdo, former CITES Secretariat chief of governing bodies and special adviser on CITES implementation. “It seems that speculators put it in storage in expectation of elephant populations continuing to decline, so ivory continues to increase in value. They’re banking on the extinction of the elephant.”
A September 2015 analysis of ivory demand drivers done for Wildlife Conservation Society by Daniel Stiles reports that the stockpiling of raw ivory for speculative purposes in China is the primary driver of the current elephant poaching crisis—rather than consumer demand for worked ivory, as commonly assumed.
Stiles suggests that 1,000 metric tons of illegal raw ivory is likely stored in Chinese warehouses, with more secreted away in Africa or other Asian countries such as Malaysia and Vietnam.
A recent report by the Kenya-based NGO Save the Elephants found that raw ivory prices in China dropped from an average of $2,100 per kilogram ($952 per pound) in the four years up to 2014 to $1,100 by November 2015. It suggested that this collapse resulted from the government’s announced intent to close its ivory market, along with increased consumer awareness and a general economic slowdown.
But Stiles, in a December 12 essay on LinkedIn, says the drop is the result of lower overall commodity prices, combined with China’s anti-corruption campaign, which has reduced prices for all luxury goods. He says it’s important to consider what will happen with the 1,000 tons of ivory held by speculators.
The SNAP working group will assess the implications of speculation under several scenarios, such as a five-year ban, a 10-year ban, and a permanent one. “We will analyze the weakness, risk, and benefits of each of those time lines,” Kang explains.
“There’s a lot of talk about a ban, but nobody has thought about what happens after the ban,” says Tien Ming Lee, a U.S.-based researcher working with the group. The group “will examine post-ban scenarios and generate numbers to see what is gained and what is lost.”
That’s why it’s critical to “have the working group led by people who are from China,” he says. “They’re knowledgeable about the trade locally and aware of the concerns of those who are involved in the trade.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that Daniel Stiles's September 2015 report was for Wildlife Conservation Society.
Laurel Neme, Ph.D., is a freelance journalist and author of Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species and Orangutan Houdini.
Follow Laurel Neme on Twitter @LaurelNeme