China's Uphill Battle Against the Ivory Trade


On January 13, in his New Year policy address, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive CY Leung announced a plan to ban ivory trade within the region.

Zhang Li, secretary general of the China Committee for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), professor at Beijing Normal University and an expert on elephants, hopes that mainland China will keep pace and enact a national ban on ivory trading, as promised by President Xi Jinping on his inaugural visit to the U.S. in September.

In a recent article for the journal Nature, Zhang Li wrote that he believed the Chinese government could purchase the country’s entire stockpile of legally held ivory, making it easier to identify the illegal ivory trade thereafter. He told chinadialogue that this acquisition would cost the country roughly $80 million.

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“This would be a straightforward, economical and effective measure to enforce,” he said.

chinadialogue: Has President Xi Jinping’s decision to ban domestic ivory trade had a direct impact?

Zhang Li: The effect can already be seen on China’s domestic ivory trade, from when Xi Jinping returned from a visit to the U.S. and made his stance known publicly last September. Surveys carried out in cities such as Guangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, and Hangzhou have shown a significant decrease in the price of ivory from many suppliers [because demand has been impacted by the measures].

State departments have formed joint working groups and traveled to places such as Fuzhou, Guangzhou, and Yangzhou to carry out research on ivory carvers and sellers, while setting a timetable for the ban.

Why is there still no timetable for the total ban of ivory trade in China? What do you think is an appropriate timeline for the phase-out?

China’s current law aims to protect the newly established market economy, and legal and registered ivory carvers and suppliers cannot simply be shut down. One problem is that ivory carving is classed as part of China’s “intangible cultural heritage.” The legal ivory market in China has been going for a long time, which makes it difficult to enact an immediate total ban. However, delaying initiatives related to the ban will give illegal ivory the chance to flow into the legal market, and the effect of Xi Jinping’s stance might fade. The sooner we see a total ban on the ivory trade the better.

What are the main challenges in introducing a total ban and how might they be resolved?

To ban the trade of ivory, the product has to be ‘decommodified.’ The simplest way would be for the state to purchase the entire stockpile of legal ivory, a strategy that the government should be thinking about. The government could purchase all of the legal ivory on the market in one go, and pass it on to museums if appropriate. After this appropriation, commercial ivory trade would no longer be allowed, and all ivory products still on the market would be classed as illegal. Ivory handicrafts could still be exhibited in museums and used in schools to educate both about Chinese cultural heritage and also the importance of protecting endangered species.

How much would be needed to purchase this stockpile?

The stockpile of African ivory acquired by importers in 2009 was priced at about $150 per kilogram, while in public auctions registered ivory carvers were getting $1,350 per kilogram; adding on inventory and management costs has increased the current price to $2,100 per kilogram. Using this figure, the cost of purchasing all of China’s domestic legal raw ivory works out at approximately $84 million, but an additional $500 million would be needed to purchase all the ivory products at the current market price. This cost could be lowered if the profit margins of these businesses could be cut by 30-40 percent.

It sounds like a huge cost, but the Chinese government has already spent over a billion dollars on eco-compensation, e.g. the “grain for green” program. These are subsidies given to farmers and land-users in order to stop them cultivating marginal cropland, which can be turned instead to forest and grassland, and funds used by local governments to carry out environmental protection and ecological system management. According to estimates, China has already spent over $100 billion through programs like these, and therefore a few hundred million dollars to protect endangered elephants is not a big expense.

These state eco-compensation programs that you mentioned are to protect and benefit China itself. Will the government be as willing to spend huge sums to protect African elephants?

A small amount of illegal ivory trade and the serious issue of ivory smuggling has already had an effect on China’s long-term investment strategy in Africa, and harmed China’s international image. China is a responsible emerging power, and has invested more funds than other Western countries into the protection of Africa’s environment and the conservation of its wildlife. Eradicating the consumption of luxury products, such as ivory, that come from endangered species is in line with state policy in promoting the development of an “ecological civilization.”

Will the trade move to other countries after China enacts a total ban?

After China and the U.S. enacted a total ban, there may still be some illegal trade for a time, but as domestic laws within these two countries are strengthened and there is a crackdown on the legal market, illegal trade is likely to move to other countries. My opinion has always been that this ban on ivory trade should not just be carried out just by China and the U.S. – it needs participation and support from all other countries. The biggest challenges African countries face are poaching, and a rise in human population, leading to loss of elephant habitat. If Africa received help from the international community to move away from the traditional and unsustainable development model that relies on selling off its natural resources to survive, I don’t believe that any African country would want to continue trading ivory and risk the extinction of elephants.

What are the main differences between the situation in U.S. and China, and how should the U.S. approach the ivory trade ban?

There are two major challenging aspects to the ban on ivory in China. First, China has a relatively large stockpile of legal ivory, and second, ivory carving has been part of China’s traditional culture for thousands of years. To ban the trade of ivory in China, there needs to be ways to transform the businesses of legal ivory carvers and suppliers that provides them with alternative livelihoods, as well as means to safeguarding this intangible cultural heritage. The U.S. legal stockpile of ivory is nowhere near as large as China’s. In 2008, CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) granted China a one-off purchase of 62 tonnes of legal ivory, and even after recent consumption there is still a relatively large legal stockpile.

[The CITES Convention came into effect on 1 July 1975, and has become international law governing the international trade of endangered species.]

In the U.S., the problem is mainly due to ivory imported from trophy hunting and ivory acquired before the CITES Convention came into effect. The U.S. domestic ban on ivory trade is currently receiving firm opposition from firearm and hunting organisations. If a national ban on the trade of ivory were to be passed within federal law, it would still only apply to trade between U.S. states; each state would need to set up its own legislation to ban ivory trade. The states of New York, New Jersey and California, where the domestic trade of ivory is most concentrated, have already taken the lead in legislating to ban the trade of all ivory acquired after the CITES convention went into effect. This means that only the trade of antique ivory is allowed. This is an important step, but China and the U.S. are still far from a total ban. There is a long way to go.

Liu Qin is an editor in chinadialogue‘s Beijing office. 

This post was originally published by chinadialogue and appears with kind permission.

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