The world’s largest ivory market will soon be shut down, according to the Chinese government.
Last week, China announced plans to phase out its domestic ivory market by the end of 2017 — a major development acknowledging the growing threat poaching poses to Africa’s dwindling elephant population, which has been cut in half in only 25 years.
While there has been an international ivory trade ban since 1989, many countries such as China have maintained domestic markets, which allow the resale of ivory imported before 1989. However, this legal trade of older ivory is frequently used as a front for the illegal import of newer tusks. Around 2002, there was an uptick in elephant slaughter across Africa just as an economic boom was expanding the income of millions of Chinese — and making the purchase of ivory carvings, a common status symbol, more attainable.
According to Keith Roberts, executive director of Conservation International’s wildlife program, it’s too soon to tell what exactly the impact of the new ban will be.
“On the one hand, it’s great that China has put a time frame on the closure of their markets; it reveals the country’s political will to address the ivory poaching crisis,” he said. “However, there are a lot of unknowns. We are dealing with transnational organized criminal syndicates, and ivory has been and continues to be a lucrative business for them. Therefore, I would expect the market to go underground, and this may well push the price of ivory up and further encourage the killing of elephants.”
Because closing the markets doesn’t actually stop the consumer demand for ivory, it won’t necessarily stop the problem on its own.
“Closure of the markets is step one,” Roberts continued. “Step two must be the government getting serious about disrupting and arresting those involved in the criminal syndicates that are responsible for most of the poaching. Step three should be a campaign to push for the closure of the legal markets in neighboring countries, which are regularly used by Chinese traders to source contraband.”
China’s professed willingness to expand its involvement in this global crisis is critical to reduce the ivory trade, especially given Africa’s ongoing struggles to fight poaching on the ground. Could 2017 be a turning point for Africa’s elephants? Time will tell.
Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Conservation News.
Cover image: An elephant near Kenya’s Mara North Conservancy. China’s plan to shut down the world’s largest ivory market will undoubtedly impact elephant populations and the ivory trade, though how exactly remains to be seen.
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