Will China’s new ban on the ivory trade help or hurt? (Commentary)

  • At the end of 2017, China announced that it had closed down the domestic legal trade in ivory, to global acclaim.
  • The new ban represents all the makings of excellent global public relations, but conservationist Karl Amman asks whether it will do more harm than good for elephants without effective enforcement.
  • The post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

At the end of 2017, China announced it had closed down the domestic trade in ivory. Conservation establishment players did victory laps declaring the move a major step in curtailing elephant poaching. The news website China.org.cn featured an opinion piece titled “More efforts are needed to stamp out the ivory trade” that essentially proclaimed that China had now done its bit and it was up to the international community to follow suit.

Whenever I am at home and receiving my daily Google updates on wildlife-trade issues, I find there are now enough of these messages out there to give me the feeling that maybe something is indeed happening. That the world is finally taking the problems associated with the wildlife trade seriously. There are tons of NGO-generated press releases touting tales of successful enforcement actions. Then I am off on one of my usual gigs, packing the obligatory bag to do some filming and investigative work in West Africa, the Middle East or Southeast Asia — which generally results in a serious reality check.

Reality bites particularly hard when it comes to China’s role in the global illegal wildlife trade and the control measures that the country supposedly has in place to curb it. The Asian juggernaut, by all accounts, leads the world in its demand for products from high-profile protected species. Yet most of these positive-sounding news items feature what are obviously opportunistic rather than systematically effective enforcement activities.

When it comes to elephants, ivory is the key wildlife product being discussed. But China is now also the largest importer of live African and Asian pachyderms (the latter being illegal to trade “for primarily commercial purposes” under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Elephant skin has also now become a major trading product.

On my trips, I regularly visit Special Economic Zones and Special Regions fully controlled by Chinese nationals in places like Laos and Myanmar, where I witness tons of illegal wildlife products for sale. The key clientele in all these places are Chinese visitors who take most of the wildlife products they acquire back into China.

After checking into a flight from Hanoi, Vietnam, to Guangzhou, China, about three years ago, I filmed a couple in the departure hall as the wife retrieved from her purse a collection of ivory items to admire and try on. I followed her through customs in China. No sign of any control. No sign of any sniffer dogs like those that have now appeared at several airports in Africa to detect CITES-listed wildlife products illegally going out on flights to known demand countries.

A Chinese traveller admires her new illegal jewelry in the airport in Hanoi, Vietnam, before embarking on a flight to Guangzhou, China. Image courtesy of Karl Ammann.

Trade shifts online, underground, across borders

Ever since China announced in 2015 that it would eventually close its legal domestic ivory trade, there has been a constant stream of news stories quoting conservationists saying this would be a game changer for elephants. It has been a fantastic public relations bandwagon for China, with a litany of NGOs and even filmmakers taking credit for encouraging Chinese policymakers to take this step.

But I have yet to see any writer compare the new ban with what happened in 1993, when China outlawed the domestic trade in rhino horn to similar accolades. The poaching pressure on rhinos has drastically increased in the last decade, with a lot of trafficking into China taking place via Vietnam and Laos. Why should things be different in the ivory business?

My local contacts in some of the tourist spots, like Luang Prabang in northern Laos, are telling me that Chinese nationals are buying up or leasing souvenir shops that flaunt ivory and other wildlife products. These shops usually provide free Wi-Fi and offer a link to their virtual shops on WeChat, the Chinese version of WhatsApp. That way, customers can show bargain items to their folks back home, who can then place additional orders on their phones.

A Chinese-owned shop in Laos advertising ivory products. Image courtesy of Karl Ammann.
A Chinese-owned shop in Laos advertising ivory products. Image courtesy of Karl Ammann.

During the run-up to the end-of-December deadline in 2017, my local contacts in tourist spots in the China-Laos and China-Myanmar border regions spoke of traders arriving with their stocks of raw material and workshop equipment (now often computerized), presumably having been told by the Chinese authorities that they should not count on any compensation when their China-based workshops would have to shut their doors. As long as legally acquired, but now illegal-to-sell, raw ivory stocks are not destroyed or bought up by the state, they will end up in the flourishing black market, which always exceeded the formerly legal trade anyway.

At the end of November 2017 we visited an ivory shop in Guangzhou. In the window was posted a for-sale sign. The owners also operated a workshop, and the shopkeepers confirmed that the items now on display would be moved back to the workshop once the shop closed. But when we later checked the shop’s phone number on WeChat it led to a rental agency and then to the former owner with confirmation that formerly legal items were still on offer.

There appears to be no law in China restricting the ownership of illegally imported or manufactured wildlife products as long as a buyer or seller is not caught in the act of a commercial transaction or bringing the item across an international border. There seems to be zero problem, legally or socially, in openly displaying or wearing these items as status symbols, which is what drives most of the market.

The web-based trade is clearly the big new loophole to promote and market ivory products domestically in China. New elephant-skin jewelry has increasingly been added to these offerings as of 2018.

More mammoth ivory outlets are also popping up. You can even waltz into one in the departure area of the Guangzhou airport after you go through customs and immigration control. Illegal elephant ivory is often marketed as legal mammoth ivory, which is increasingly available. But buyers of smaller items are unlikely to be able to tell the difference.

Established ivory traders quickly seized on these new retail platforms in China, as well as the trade in the Chinese-controlled enclaves in neighboring countries, as fantastic new sales opportunities. Ever-increasing numbers of Chinese tourists looking for bargains assume zero risk when they take these products back into the Middle Kingdom. In other words, the domestic trade seems to be shifting online, underground and across borders.

Ivory for sale in a shop in Vientiane, Laos. Image courtesy of Karl Ammann.
Ivory for sale in a shop in Vientiane, Laos. Image courtesy of Karl Ammann.

Cheap, mass-produced ivory trinkets

In addition there is more and more machine carving and mass production of ivory trinkets, from bangles to chopsticks. This is an aspect of the story you do not generally read in the international press’s feel-good reports: the market is clearly scaling down to cater to a new consumer segment with cheaper and cheaper mass-produced products.

In 2016, a survey conducted by the Nairobi-based NGO Save the Elephants indicated that the price of raw ivory had dropped by almost half over the preceding 18 months, implying that this was due to reduced demand in part as a consequence of the Chinese domestic market’s imminent closure. John Scanlon, secretary general of CITES, joined the celebrations in a statement to Agence France Presse that the bottom was dropping out of the ivory market.

Our own research corroborated that the average price for raw ivory in neighboring countries had come down from $1,200 to $800 per kilogram. However the retail price of finished ivory jewelry and artifacts had remained at a constant $2 to $4 per gram.

We also found that rhino horn prices had dropped from about $60,000 per kilogram in 2012 to about $20,000 today. Clearly this had nothing to do with any imminent closure of the market, since the domestic trade was outlawed in 1993.

Moreover, lower prices for raw ivory and persistently stable prices for retail items must mean a higher profit margin for traders along the supply line. This trend appears to have lured more merchants to set up retail stores and move to web-based platforms to hawk their wares. In 2017 we sourced a list of about 42 Laos-based Chinese nationals who owned retail outlets or sold ivory via e-commerce platforms.

While in Guangzhou in late November 2017 we also tested the wildlife-products market. Our Cantonese-speaking guides from Hong Kong ordered some tiger-bone items, which suppliers offered among hundreds or even thousands of ivory items, carved pangolin scales, rhino-horn medallions and so-called karma bracelets, hornbill-ivory items, and turtle-shell jewelry. Most of this trade is illegal under national and international law.

Our local operatives found that WeChat searches required special terminology, or related emojis, to avoid keyword filters blocking the messages: “jelly” or “white plastic” for ivory and “king” for tiger products. One trader informed our intermediaries that all items offered as mammoth ivory, which is legal, were indeed from elephant tusks.

Before our operatives paid via WeChat Wallet, the supplier sent customer references to assure them that the offers were not some kind of a scam. The items arrived at our hotel in Guangzhou in a very timely fashion. The package was delivered to the concierge and we picked it up without any problems or questions being asked. We have since sent these samples to a Swiss lab for testing to see if they are indeed from tigers or instead the bones of other animals. They could even be from lions, seeing that this species is at the center of another big new scam, thanks in no small part to South Africa’s decision last year to allow the continued exports of 800 lion skeletons a year. These will be sold as sought-after tiger products. Lion-tiger bones, mammoth-elephant ivory: the dealers tend to be a few moves ahead of the conservation establishment.

I have admired some fantastic art pieces carved out of elephant and mammoth ivory. No one could fail to appreciate the difference in workmanship between such large pieces and the small, mass-produced ivory trinkets now flooding the markets. I am convinced that the top-end products and the artists and craftsmen behind them have not driven the ivory market for many years. With rising Chinese affluence, people are increasingly able to afford lower-level status symbols, and status is what drives the market’s luxury segments.

Legal ivory for sale in China before the ban took effect. Its authentication certificate is on display. Image courtesy of Karl Ammann.
Legal ivory for sale in China before the ban took effect. Its authentication certificate is on display. Image courtesy of Karl Ammann.

Things might get worse

On my trip to China in November 2017, I asked a Chinese wildlife trade expert why the country’s new regulations should be considered the end of elephant poaching. After all, 25 years after the country closed its domestic market for rhino horn there is now more poaching pressure on rhinos than before.

One of the answers I got was: Things might get worse. At least the legal ivory trade offered some sort of safety valve, which has now lapsed, combined with the “reverse stigma syndrome” of forbidden products potentially having even more appeal.

All indications are that demand for ivory is increasing. In my opinion, a survey [pdf] by TRAFFIC, the U.K.-based wildlife trade monitoring network, bears this out. Completed in 2017 in 15 Chinese cities, its purpose was to establish a baseline for evaluating the impact of the new regulation. Among the findings:

  • Forty-three percent of respondents claimed they intended to purchase ivory in the future, but the number dropped to 18 percent after hearing of the ban.
  • Fifty-one percent of millennials heard of the ban and when prompted 21 percent intended to buy ivory after the ban took effect.
  • Those who travel overseas have bought significantly more ivory in the past than those who never travel.

Today China is home to 1.4 billion people. If even 18 percent of them are ready to buy ivory despite the ban, we are looking at 252 million potential illegal ivory consumers. I do not even dare to calculate how many dead elephants this demand would exact, especially considering that after you purchase an item and you now wear it to a party there is apparently nothing illegal about it.

Sri Lankan elephants. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Sri Lankan elephants. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

Control ivory like counterfeits

That China has a better engineered control system for internet access than any other nation is well known. BBC and CNN have reported that up to 2 million technicians in China are employed to monitor web gateways. If the country had a real interest in monitoring the illegal trade in wildlife products, it could certainly do so much more effectively than what we have documented, both online and at border crossings.

In 2015 the French luxury goods maker Kering sued Alibaba, the Chinese parent company of one of the key wildlife trading platforms, TaoBao, in a U.S. court for copyright infringement and selling counterfeit products, including Kering’s Gucci bags. There was an out-of-court settlement, plus a nicely timed feature in China Daily outlining why Alibaba leads the online fight against fakes. The feature tells how Alibaba has 100 employees shopping its sites, spending around 100 million yuan (almost $16 million) to buy 100,000 products a year. The company then pays to test these products, and when a copyright infraction turns up, decides whether to hand the case over to law enforcement. In 2016, 1,184 cases resulted in the arrest of 880 suspects and supposedly the closure of 1,419 counterfeit manufacturing outfits.

An elephant trunk available illegally online. Image courtesy of Karl Ammann.
An elephant trunk available illegally online. Image courtesy of Karl Ammann.

Would it be so far-fetched for a nongovernmental organization — such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare, WWF, the Wildlife Conservation Society, or WildAid, which have collectively invested millions in demand-reduction campaigns in China — to file a similar legal case? What if Alibaba turned its army of shoppers and testers onto rooting out the trade in illegal wildlife products?

The closure of China’s domestic ivory markets and the worldwide applause that it drew will enhance the country’s image for a few years. But the time has come to stop celebrating and instead start establishing what is really happening in the market, via both over-the-counter sales and cyberspace. That requires investigative work, some of it by undercover local operatives.

As it stands, my conclusion is that China is not serious about clamping down on the ivory trade. NGOs that wish to continue working in the country will not be able to rock the boat. Media outlets no longer seem to have the resources to carry out long-term investigative projects or set up infiltrating networks to shine a light on the ongoing illegal domestic ivory trade. They find it easier to pick up NGO press releases on the subject.

At the supply end, in Africa and other places, governance quality and the level of corruption will make it even harder to engineer effective change. As long as the demand is there and increasing, there will be supply. China and other demand or transit countries like Vietnam and Laos pride themselves on being ahead of the developing supply countries in terms of governance. But all indications are that while they have the tools to take enforcement measures, they instead appear to prefer window dressing and lip service to avoid losing face and image problems.

The CITES secretariat and parties also have tools to go after member states that are in constant noncompliance, like China is. But once again the quiet and diplomatic approach, which has not worked for the last few decades, is still being advocated.

I am just glad I am not an elephant.

Asian elephant in Cambodia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Asian elephant in Cambodia. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

Banner image: African elephants in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

Karl Ammann is an author, wildlife photographer and conservation activist based in Kenya. Learn more about his work at Karlammann.com.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this piece appeared on the South African website the Daily Maverick.

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