Updated: Mar 27, 2018
By Henry Barclay
For several years, a single issue hung over Chinese government officials at every international meeting. Between discussion over trade and economics, China’s high demand for ivory products and its effect on the decreasing African Elephant population remained a focal point, drawn into focus again and again.
In the face of international criticism, China deflected the issue. Officials pointed to the country’s long cultural heritage and its involvement in international policies, such as a 2015 ban on ivory carving imports, as counterpoints to any criticism.
But even with these arguments, external pressure continued to mount for the country of more than 1 billion people to join against the ivory trade, and in 2015, the US (also one of the largest consumers of animal products) and China urged forward together.
That year, on a state visit to Washington, Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Obama agreed that the two nations would impose “nearly complete bans on ivory import and export” and “take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory”(1).
Months of negotiation and deliberation followed and on December 30, 2016, China finally announced that a ban on all domestic ivory trade would come into effect by the end of 2017 (2), effectively shutting down the world's largest legal ivory market.
The path to this victory was not as simple and straightforward as this declaration would imply. The struggle goes back decades and the modern effort to protect African elephants from poachers gained true momentum in the late 80s.
In 1989, the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) took steps to protect African Elephants by banning the international trade of all African Elephants and their specimens (3) with some exceptions regarding previously held ivory and the issuing of permits that grant some nations permission to hunt elephants and trade ivory.
While the ruling does impose restrictions on international trade, CITES has no control over a country’s domestic actions, leaving it up to each individual country to decide whether trading in endangered species should be permitted (4). The ban also does allow ivory antiques to be traded, which some fear will keep a loophole open for new ivory to be mixed in with the old. Once ivory is illegally smuggled into a country, it can be mixed in with the legal trade, becoming impossible to separate.
In the face of these difficulties and a global increase in the breadth and severity of the trade, some countries such as the UK and USA have taken individual steps to strictly regulate and limit their own domestic ivory trades.
On July 1, 2013, several years before his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Obama signed Executive Order 13648 (5) which committed the USA to increasing its efforts against wildlife trafficking. As a result, a near total ban on the domestic trade of ivory came into effect by 6th July 2016 (6).
Not all countries leapt at the bans and the potential benefits it would have on elephants. The 2016-2017 Chinese ban faced opposition within the local government. Zhang Li, an elephant protection expert at Beijing Normal University who consulted on the Ban and a representative of the State Forestry Administration stated that "from a business standpoint, wild animals are the same as natural resources and they can be used sustainably” with a general message being that “foreign animals don’t matter”.
The belief that another country’s animals are their own issue to be managed in isolation is simply inaccurate. The protection and restoration of animal populations is a global crisis with global consequences, many of them economic. In a globally connected world, no country exists alone and the demand and desires of one country can have huge effects on another. Over the years China has become increasingly cooperative on this and has now almost had a complete change in stance on global conservation to try and become a global leader.
Over the past several years, trade between China and the African continent has increased substantially. In 2014 alone, China signed over £55 billion in construction contracts with the continent (7). This economic investment affects Chinese policies as they’re forced to take into account the needs and desires of the African nations they work with.
African elephants are a huge source of national pride and a prime tourist attraction. Their growth and survival is a high priority for countries on the continent, and, subsequently, it becomes a priority for countries looking to invest in the area. As elephant populations continue to decline, their survival carries more and more weight in negotiations.
Economics not only lead the demand; they are also affected by it as the price of ivory has steadily dropped in anticipation of the Chinese ban. In 2014, a kilogram of ivory fetched about $2,100. By February 2017, it had dropped to $730, a decrease of over 65% (8). The price is anticipated only fall further as the ban comes into effect and the demand for ivory loses its supply.
The commitment of each country’s law enforcement to the enforcement of this new ban is crucial to its success or failure. While the ban is an improvement, no one believes it will stop the catastrophic poaching of African Elephants in entirety.
The reality is that though this is a step forward and it will stem a lot of demand for new raw ivory, it is by no means the end to this crisis. So long as there is consumer demand, elephants will be poached for their ivory. When the demand stops, so does the poaching.
Note from the author: China's change in stance with regard to global conservation is noticeable and applaudable. In the last few years China and it's citizens have increasingly become advocates for global conservation and I welcome this stance and help from one of the largest super powers in the world. If we, as a global community, can work together we stand a better chance of saving these species.
1) House, W., 2015. FACT SHEET: President Xi Jinping’s State Visit to the United States. Press Release, 25. URL: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/09/25/fact-sheet-president-xi-jinpings-state-visit-united-states
3) CITES., 2016. Current rules on commercial international trade in elephant ivory under CITES and Proposals to CITES CoP17. Press release, July 21, 2016. URL: https://cites.org/eng/news/Current_rules_commercial_international_trade_elephant_ivory_under_CITES_Proposals_CITES_CoP17_200716
4) CITES., 2011. Convention on International trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora. URL: http://www.cites.org/esp/app/appendices.shtml.
5) White House., 2013. Executive Order—Combating Wildlife Trafficking. Press release, July 1, 2013.
6) The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service., Revisions to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) Special Rule for the African Elephant. Press release, June 6, 2016. URL: https://www.fws.gov/international/pdf/questions-and-answers-african-elephant-4d-final-rule.pdf