At the end of 2017, China came through on its 2015 promise with the United States to ban the legal sale of ivory in China. While this is undoubtedly a huge help to elephant conservation, China will need to address its illegal ivory trade in order to have a lasting impact.
In the hallways of Beijing Capital Airport, there is one charismatic advertisement that seems to reappear every 100 meters or so: that of world-famous basketball player Yao Ming “fist-bumping” with an elephant. Above the advertisement text in Chinese (and not in English as well, unique among advertisements in Beijing Airport’s international wing) proclaims: “In the name of the law, ivory is no longer a commodity.” This advertisement is meant to bring awareness to the fact that on December 31, 2017, despite being the world’s largest legal ivory market, the previously legal ivory trade was shut down. As National Geographic reported at the time, that meant “All of the country’s licensed ivory carving factories and retailers [were] shuttered.”
Some experts were skeptical as to whether China would follow through on its 2015 pledge, alongside the United States, to implement an ivory ban. But not only was the promise kept, China has taken visible steps to enforce it as well. In February 2019, China stood by Tanzania’s decision to convict Yang Fenglan, a Chinese national, to 15 years behind bars for ivory smuggling. Yang had been living in Tanzania since the 1970s and held a wide array of jobs, from a Chinese restaurant owner to the vice president of the “China-Africa Business Council,” a position she held at the time of her arrest in 2015. The organization’s website contends that it is committed to serving Chinese investors in Africa, dedicated to the development of Africa, and actively responds to the measures of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Yang was arrested along with two Tanzanian nationals, and in addition to the 15 year jail sentence, was given a fine of $13 million.
In a press release by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spokesperson Geng Shuang said that “China does not protect Chinese nationals who commit crimes abroad, and that China upholds the just decision made by Tanzania in this case.” Geng elaborated further on his remarks, saying that “China is willing to continue to contribute to the protection of endangered wildlife and the suppression of illegal trade, together with the international community including Tanzania.” Without a doubt, China’s approval of the arrest of Yang Fenglan is an important step to curbing ivory trafficking.
Meanwhile, the recent ban, just over a year old, is already starting to show results in changing Chinese consumer’s view towards ivory (even though it is too early to say whether the ban has had any effect on elephant populations). However, without the legal ivory trade, illegal ivory trafficking has grown. For the 2017 ban to have a meaningful effect, China will need to clamp down on its illegal ivory trade as well.
In order to understand how the Chinese ivory trade became what it is today, it is important to start from the beginning of China’s love affair with ivory.
Due to the rampant poaching of elephants during the 1980s, the “Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and Wildlife Flora” (CITES) placed elephants in their “Appendix I” category in 1990. This classification of animals is reserved for only the world’s most endangered plants and animals, and by placing elephants on this list the worldwide sale of ivory was essentially banned. Initially many countries in Africa reported the ban as being incredibly effective and that it helped stabilize their elephant populations.
However, since many African countries do not have an abundance of resources to spare for wildlife conservation, poaching continued, albeit at a much lower level than before the CITES ban in 1990. In order to raise money for elephant conservation, CITES approved a “one-time sale” of 49.4 metric tons of stockpiled ivory in 1999 from Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe to Japan. The money used from this sale of seized ivory was used to fund elephant protection, and due to the success of this sale, CITES approved another “one-time sale” in 2008. However this time the sale went to both Japan and China, and while it did raise $15 million worth of badly needed funds for elephant conservation, it also contributed to the revival of the ivory craze in China: a country where the ivory trade was legal.
In China, ivory is seen as status symbol. The raw tusks that are brought into China are usually turned into anything from Buddhist statues to chopsticks. With the rampant rise in demand for ivory after 2008, Tanzania saw their elephant population decrease from 110,000 wild elephants in 2009 to a depressing 44,000 in 2014. Yang Fenglan is believed to be responsible for at least 400 of those deaths. As an animal with a gestational period of 22 months, growing elephant populations is incredibly difficult.
Meanwhile, with the growing soft power of China in Africa, more and more Chinese nationals have started to move there and live in countries where heavy Chinese industry operates. As the ivory craze took hold, some of these Chinese discovered they could operate lucrative side operations without arousing too much suspicion from the local governments. Two countries in particular have a great deal of Chinese industry: Tanzania, where Yang Fenglan was arrested, and Mozambique. In Mozambique, China has a strong hold on the local timber industry and fisherman from Fujian and Guangdong have moved there since the 1990s to take advantage of the sea cumber industry. This brought about the growth of a small but lively Chinese expat community in Eastern Africa. Once they realized that ivory was much more profitable than sea cucumbers, what has been called the “Shuidong Syndicate” was born.
The explosion in ivory smuggling created by the ivory ban in 1990 and then the revival of Chinese interest in ivory in 2008 created a lucrative business for would-be fisherman who found elaborate ways to take illegal ivory from Africa (where the hunting of elephants is prohibited in many countries) and bring it to China, where it could be sold legally. One of the more famous crime syndicates to grow in this space is from the city of Shuidong, a small city just north of the island of Hainan in the South China Sea. An important report released by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) outlines in detail the rise of the “Shuidong Syndicate.” The town of Shuidong originally specialized in sea cucumber shipments, for which their fisherman made frequent and long trips to the islands of Zanzibar in Tanzania and the port of Mombasa in Kenya. Now these former sea-cucumber fisherman have an elaborate transportation route through which they ship raw tusks from the coastal city of Pemba in Mozambique, to South Korea, where they are less likely to be searched by customs officials. From South Korea, the gang brings their goods down to Hong Kong, where, disguised as a local shipments, the ivory slips past customs officials and is brought to Shanghai. From Shanghai the illegal ivory is brought to its final destination overland, Shuidong, home to 80 percent of China’s now illegal ivory. By the end of their trip, each kilo of ivory is valued at approximately $750 and each shipment can be expected to make $1.3 million, according to The Economist.
The Shuidong Syndicate is very much alive and well; however, China’s ban on ivory is making a difference. Since the ban went into effect last year, a poll done by National Geographic “found that 72 percent of respondents would not buy ivory, compared to 50 percent when the poll was conducted last year, before the domestic trade ban went into effect.” However National Geographic commented further, saying this can most likely be attributed to changing consumer awareness about the effects of the ivory trade, as the poll also found that only 8 percent of the people polled knew about the ban. In addition, a report done by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and “TRAFFIC,” a wildlife trade monitoring network, found that eight out of 10 people interviewed agreed that the ban “will make them completely stop buying ivory… suggesting that the ban has a significant impact on the reported purchase intention.”
The next step, says Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert in the illegal wildlife trade and organized crime at the Brookings Institution, is for China to make large and continuous raids on traders. This, she believes, will really send the message home to many Chinese that ivory is no longer a commodity. However as of July 2017, there has not been a single notable arrest of anyone in the Shuidong region over ivory.
In addition, another investigation done by “TRAFFIC” found that even though all the legally licensed stores that they visited in 2017 no longer sold ivory in 2018, the total amount of illegal ivory pieces that they found had actually grown. From 2017 to 2018 TRAFFIC looked at different cities, including some along the Vietnamese border, a notorious hotspot for ivory trading. However, the fact still remains illegal ivory sales in second-tier cities by local vendors do not seem to be affected. Equally as alarming was that 76 percent of ivory found in 2018 was “new ivory,” meaning it was harvested after the 1989 CITES ban. All the ivory found in third-tier cities was “new.” Clearly the suppliers from whom the vendors are getting their ivory from are still poaching for new materials.
The recent arrest of Yang Fenglan and the high-level approval by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is important because it shows not only that China is no longer participating in the ivory trade, but also that, at least at the highest levels of government, China is committed to wildlife conservation and supporting others in that effort — even if that means imprisoning Chinese citizens. However, while Yang’s arrest is an important signal to internationally travelling Chinese about the consequences of illegal activities, if China does not seek out and punish the numerous professionals operating illegally within its own borders the lasting impact of the ban will be minimal.
Nevertheless, the implementation of the ban and Yang’s arrest are signs that in the future China will take wildlife conservation more seriously. This bodes well for the elephants.
Kevin T. Bielicki has worked in policy analysis in Beijing.