In a huge step for elephant conservation this week, China finalized its near-total ivory ban, closing the world’s largest domestic ivory market.
At the beginning of the year, China announced it would close its ivory market by December 31, 2017. By March 31, it had closed roughly one-third of its ivory processors and retailers, and the remaining 22 ivory processors and 88 retailers will be closed before the year ends this week.
Anticipation of the ban has already had a positive impact on China’s ivory trade, with Save the Elephants finding that the wholesale price of raw (i.e., uncarved) ivory in China has fallen by more than 50% in the last three years, licensed ivory factories and retail outlets have voluntarily closed, and that the number of illegal ivory items on display for sale has sharply declined since 2013.
Now, the Chinese government is setting to work ramping up enforcement and educating the public about its ban. China’s State Forestry Administration (SFA) is urging the newly-closed business to seal (i.e., store/warehouse) their unsold and half-processed ivory. It is also encouraging stores that have sold ivory in the past to unregister their business licenses altogether, stopping them from selling anything, to aid enforcement. Enforcement agencies such as the Forestry Police, provincial and city market control departments, SFA, and Culture Department will also regularly inspect businesses to ensure they are no longer selling ivory, as well as overseeing the market as a whole. With the help of NRDC and other NGOs, SFA is launching a public education campaign later this week in hopes that the more people that are aware of the ban, the less likely they are to violate it. And the Chinese Forestry Police also destroyed 209 pieces of ivory worth $300,000 in Dalian, China on Dec. 20 and will hopefully destroy more of its significant stockpile in the months and years to come (read more about why destroying stockpiles is important here).
Meanwhile, as the Chinese government takes two steps forward regarding elephant protection, the Trump administration is taking two steps back. The Department of Interior has begun rolling back Obama-era protections for elephants and other species imperiled by wildlife trafficking by, for example, allowing imports of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe (which NRDC is suing over), proposing to establish a new “International Wildlife Conservation Council” to advise Trump on how to enhance trophy hunters’ ability to hunt internationally, and essentially getting rid of the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking.
Countries outside the U.S. are facing problems with elephant protection too as China’s ivory trade shifts into neighboring countries, such as Vietnam and Laos, which China hopes to prevent with increased border enforcement. A recent report also shows the rampant illegal ivory trade in Japan masked by its legal domestic ivory market.
It’s crucial other countries and regions with domestic ivory markets, including the UK and EU—both of which recently commenced public comment periods on ivory bans—now follow China's lead and shut them down (you can tell the UK government to shut down its ivory market here). As recognized in resolutions agreed to by many countries and leading conservation experts at the IUCN World Conservation Congress and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), domestic ivory bans are critical to stopping the poaching of elephants. And while China is one piece of the puzzle, all countries must work together to end the global ivory trade if we hope to bring elephants back from the brink.