China Signals Shutdown of Its Ivory Industry

by Bill Clark

Beginning March 31, 2017, China is embarking on a deliberate, nine-month sequential procedure to shut down its ivory industry. In so doing, it is dismantling the world’s most important marketplace for both legal and contraband ivory. Hardly anyone anticipated that the decision would be so sudden, comprehensive, and authoritative.

This welcome reprieve is the single most important blessing for the elephants in many decades. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of elephants have been criminally targeted and slaughtered to satiate the demand—largely from Asia—for ivory. The Chinese shutdown should be acknowledged and celebrated by all who cherish, celebrate, and advocate for elephants, and who have grieved through the horrible persecutions they have suffered.

Make no mistake. China is not just shuttering a few businesses or marketplaces. It is closing down an enormous billion-dollar national industry—one that involves raw material imports, the maintenance of warehouses for stockpiling ivory inventories, and the operation of dozens of factories with carving machinery and large numbers of highly skilled craftsmen. It is halting transportation systems that have been responsible for moving tons of raw and worked ivory around the country from factories to retail outlets. It is ending a complex administration that managed the entire process of import, inventory, carving, and distribution, along with associated marketing departments, finance and banking departments, human resources departments, and all the other cogs in the machinery of a major industry.

Tacit to these closures is the clamping down on criminal activities such as smuggling operations, trafficking rings, money laundering activities, business record falsification schemes, and many other illegal activities, including fraud, conspiracy, corruption, tax evasion, and homicide.

The decision was made by China’s State Council, the highest administrative authority of the Chinese government. The council announced its intent to “combat illegal trade in ivory” by deciding “to orderly stop the commercial processing and sale of ivory and related products.” This will be done in four stages (outlined below), to be completed no later than December 31, 2017.

China’s 34 legal ivory factories and 143 “trading venues” will be closed.

Master carvers will be relocated to noncommercial studios in museums and similar institutions to preserve their skills, or transitioned to commercial workshops where they will carve items such as wood or stone.

Commercial trade in ivory will be prohibited. A licensing procedure will be created to allow the transfer of “legitimate ivory artifacts” as gifts or inheritances or the sale at auction of “cultural artifacts.”

There will be intensified enforcement efforts to crack down on the illegal processing, sale, transport, and smuggling of ivory. There will be extensive publicity and public education promoting the concept of “ecological civilization” to “guide the public to consciously resist the illegal trading of ivory.”

The concept of ecological civilization—which involves building a new relationship with the planet based on ecological principles—is advocated by China’s President Xi Jinping. Use of the term here indicates that China’s decision regarding its ivory industry has the president’s personal endorsement and is part of China’s broader “ecological civilization reforms” to stem air and water pollution, address natural resource and waste management, and deal with other environment issues. With such support from the highest levels of the government, the ivory shutdown has a good chance for success.

Certainly there are a few loopholes and soft spots in the decision. The prospects of cultural ivory artifacts being sold at auction and craftsmen carving ivory in museum studios are worrisome. It is also not clear if individual persons or businesses will be prohibited from holding raw, uncarved ivory. But it is extremely unlikely that exploitation of these loopholes would result in abuses anywhere near the magnitude presently being suffered by the elephants. To the contrary, this decision makes clear that China has decided to eliminate its ivory industry and will employ significant resources to suppress anyone who refuses to comply. It’s a commitment made to the world, and to all the people of China, by government agencies that know they will be watched with very keen interest.

Critically, the decision is an implicit acknowledgment of China’s long-term involvement in illegal ivory trade. Until very recently, Chinese authorities flatly denied that legal domestic ivory markets had any influence on elephant poaching and trafficking in ivory. They claimed, wrongly, that very strict control of the legal domestic ivory market prevented the laundering of any illegal ivory into the legal stocks. This is a common refrain still made by officials in Japan, the United Kingdom, Thailand, Italy, and numerous other countries.

But now the State Council, by shutting down China’s legal domestic ivory markets “to combat illegal trade in ivory,” is acknowledging the link between legal domestic markets and the laundering of poached and smuggled ivory. This courageous and virtuous admission by the Chinese should now be emulated by other countries with significant ivory markets.

The remaining large-scale ivory markets are also in Asia, where significant profits are still available and where the largest criminal ivory syndicates remain active. China’s bold move is rattling these markets and syndicates because, without the existence of legal markets, it is extremely difficult to sell ivory to retail customers. Since ivory is a status and fashion statement, not unlike Rolex watches or Gucci shoes, it is not marketed in dark alleys. It is sold at upscale boutiques. But those retail markets are now doomed. While some may slip through the cracks and set up shop in some clandestine locations, they will not have much of a clientele. And if Beijing keeps its word, those back-alley operations will be hounded intensely, at a time when the price of ivory should be falling precipitously.

Ivory is a status symbol that is suddenly losing its status. That’s a critically important reason why “ecological civilization” is affixed to the Chinese decision. Ivory is no longer acceptable in the highest circles of Chinese power and, especially in China, bureaucratic subordinates must remain keenly sensitive to what is acceptable within those higher circles. All officials will quietly retire their ivory signature seals. There will be no ivory chopsticks at state banquets. Ivory carvings will be removed from display in the offices of senior officials. Not even a single ivory finger ring will be seen at a diplomatic reception. China’s business community will quickly follow the trend. The ripple effect from this decision will soon be evident wherever status and fashion are considered important. It likely will extend into other Asian countries where ivory markets today remain viable, especially those with large Chinese communities.

Most knowledgeable observers agree that China had been consuming between half and three-quarters of all ivory from elephants poached in Africa. With the impending shutdowns, that market should collapse. As demand collapses, so will the price paid for ivory. This will reduce the incentive for poaching, as few poachers in Africa will risk their lives or liberty for such a drastically devalued prize. This should provide an immediate reprieve for the elephants, as well as the rangers responsible for protecting them. These expectations should be reflected in poaching statistics and ivory seizure data reported during 2017.

Inevitably, there will be risk of an ivory market recovery. Policies can change in China, just as they do in the United States. There is also risk of some criminal syndicates trying to acquire ivory at prices made cheap because of the collapse of the Chinese market. They likely would try smuggling the contraband into other countries where domestic ivory markets remain legal. For this reason, it is vitally important that law enforcement efforts in Africa improve and that customs and other enforcement agencies in countries where domestic ivory markets remain legal be especially vigilant.

Elephant advocates must also capitalize on the momentum created by China’s dramatic decision and use it to persuade other major ivory markets to follow suit. Hong Kong’s announced plan of a five-year closure process is unjustifiably long. Japan’s insistence that its ivory market does not contribute to elephant poaching or ivory trafficking must be challenged. Thailand, after repeated failed promises by its leaders to get its domestic ivory business under control, can no longer ignore the writing on the wall so boldly inscribed by China’s action.

A lingering question remains: Why did China make such a swift and dramatic gesture after decades of stonewalling on this issue? Was it due to discussions between China’s president and former US president Barack Obama? Unlikely, given the timid, ill-conceived US vote against listing all African elephants on Appendix I (highest level of protection) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) at the treaty’s October conference. (See AWI Quarterly, winter 2016.) Similarly, the Europeans behaved like unabashed cowards when the ivory issue came to the CITES floor.

In fact, African countries may deserve much of the credit. They have been carrying the heaviest burden for decades, with hundreds of thousands of their elephants and thousands of their rangers sacrificed on the “sustainable use” altars of the industrialized world’s greed.

While the interests of these African countries are not always aligned, they now understand that the elephant is their common heritage and it will take an uncommon unity of effort to save this magnificent animal from extinction. Indeed, it is this unity of purpose to save the elephant that caused 29 African countries to stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the CITES meeting, demanding that their elephants receive the highest level of protection, that ivory markets be shut down, and that ivory stockpiles be destroyed. Perhaps this, together with Botswana’s break with pro-ivory-trade southern African countries to embrace the common cause of protection, was what triggered China’s decision. The leadership of Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba, and other African officials perhaps persuaded China that if you want to be friends with Africans, it behooves you to act kindly toward their elephants.