Endangered Elephants' Fate Rests With China's Crucial Decision
Supply of and demand for ivory in China is a complicated issue, affected as much by obfuscated trade policies - national and international, present and historical - as socioeconomic factors within the world's second largest but fastest growing economy.
While China has recently announced to implement a "one-year import suspension of ivory carvings" the limited amount of ivory import that will be affected, only makes me realize how small the legal ivory trade truly is in China.
Though negligible, the legal ivory trade is the ultimate culprit in attracting, incentivizing and disguising a massive illegal ivory trade.
In order to understand the situation, we need to go back to 1989 when CITES banned the international trade in elephant ivory.
The ban stigmatized ivory consumption, causing the demand in the West to wither away, ivory markets to collapse and prices to drop. The reduced ivory price weakened incentives of poaching elephants for their ivory.
The ivory trade ban provided elephants - a long living and slow breeding species - some much needed reprieve. African elephant populations started to recover from the devastating massacres in the 1970s and 80s that more than halved their population.
However, the trade ban was short-lived, undermined by a series of legal ivory sales, including one in 2008, when China bought 62 tons of ivory and is distributing at an annual rate of 5 tons to the 37 government-approved ivory carving factories.
These legal sales have removed any stigma attached to ivory consumption created by the initial trade ban, confused consumers and stimulated the dying demand for ivory.
In China, elephant ivory and rhino horn were increasingly promoted by traders and investors for their so-called "inflation-proof investment value." With its price sky-rocketing, ivory was considered "white gold" by people seeking to demonstrate their wealth and status.
China's escalating demand for ivory made the country a significant destination for smuggled ivory from poached elephants. The Chinese market was identified in a CITES report as the single most important influence on the increasing trend in illegal trade in ivory since 1995.
Market investigations found widespread abuse of the ivory trade control system which provides cover for a flourishing illegal ivory trade. One ivory carving factory owner admitted that the government rationed legal ivory last only one month of a year, making 91 percent of the ivory coming through the factory from illegal sources. Under the disguise of a government-approved license a convicted ivory smuggler trafficked 7.7 tons of ivory from Africa to China in 2011.
NGO investigations found that ivory from the CITES-approved legal ivory sale was bought for an average price of $157 per kilogram, yet sold to licensed ivory carving factories for as much as $1,500 per kilogram. The huge mark-up in price for the legal ivory forced many licensed ivory carving factory owners to source the much cheaper illegal ivory in order to make up the profit.
The grey markets created by the legal ivory trade not only play into the hands of criminals smuggling ivory and poaching elephants, but also fuel official corruption. An official convicted of corruption was found to have received bribes in the form of ivory tusks. Allegations of government officials using diplomatic channels to smuggle ivory repeatedly surfaced in the media. It has been a well-known "secret" that the arrival of Chinese delegations in Africa could even jack up market price for ivory.
Escalating demand and rising ivory prices in China incentivizes poaching of elephants. A recent study documented an estimated 100,000 elephants were killed for their ivory across Africa from 2010 to 2012. Scientists warn if the demand for ivory is not reduced, some elephant populations in Africa could become extinct in ten years.
Awareness raising campaigns can erase ignorance but cannot eradicate greed. Enlightened Chinese public increasingly support a full ivory trade ban as means to save elephants and combat corruption.
At the annual legislative and political advisory sessions, proposals are tabled for government to crack down on official consumption of endangered species. Surveys found the most compelling reason given by former ivory buyers for not consuming ivory in the future, is for the government to make ivory buying illegal in all circumstances.
The elephant poaching crisis was created by increased demand and will only end when it is reduced. A ban on legal sales of ivory in China is the greatest single step that could be taken for elephants and would clearly be a popular move.
Illegal ivory trade has long eclipsed the legal one in China. Banning ivory trade will only hurt the criminals banking on the extinction of elephants, who have long enjoyed the high-profit and low-risk nature of the illegal ivory trade.
Banning ivory trade, combined with vigorous enforcement and meaningful penalties for violators will stigmatize ivory consumption, reduce demand and garner China the respect of the world for helping to save elephants.