Thoughts on China’s ban on ivory trade

Author: Yuankun Zhao; Translator: George @Animal Dialogue

Acknowledgments: I would like to give special thanks to EIA’s suggestions and support.

China is the world’s largest ivory consumer. China has the largest market for ivory in the world. Yet, at the other end of the earth, the number of African Elephants is decreasing annually, from around 1.2 million elephants in 1981 to less than 500 thousand elephants in 2017. China has always been at the center of the controversies around ivory. Therefore, in 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Former U.S. President Barack Obama made a joint statement on closing the domestic ivory market in their respective countries. On Dec. 30th, 2016, General Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China issued a notification regarding orderly closing commercial processing and sales of tusks and ivory products. On Mar. 20th, 2017, State Forestry Administration P.R. China issued “List of closing of processing units and places of sales of commercial processing and sales of tusks and ivory products by stages,” aiming to first close 67 sites of ivory processing and sales before Mar. 31st, and then close the remaining ones by the end of 2017.

Many are skeptical towards China’s effort to close its domestic ivory market: Can China successfully close its domestic legal ivory market? Will the price of ivory increase as a result of these new measurements taken by the government?

A report from the Chinese office of International Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network (TRAFFIC) answered the skeptics in detail. This report is issued on this year’s World Elephant day, in which the state of the domestic ivory market (both legal and illegal) since the trade ban was carried out is thoroughly introduced. This is the first and only organizational evaluation of the effectiveness of the trade ban’s execution since its introduction.

The current state of the Chinese ivory market 

According to statistics from the 2017 TRAFFIC report, among the 23 cities and 110 legal stores inspected, 50 were planned to close before Mar. 31st, and only one had been found to operate privately; Among the 60 stores that planned to close before Dec. 31st, 16 did not display the corresponding ivory product identification card with displayed ivory items, 3 failed to display the designated license required for the operation of ivory sales, 2 failed to provide advocacy materials to customers, and 4 were not selling ivory at the designated areas. The violation rate has dropped by 63% comparing to that in 2016. Therefore, the execution result of the ivory ban among legal stores is satisfactory.

Illegal markets exist both before and after the trade ban. There are concerns as to whether the trade ban would provide incentives for illegal merchants to intentionally stock large pile of ivory, leading to a surge in its price in the black market. However, according to the numbers provided by the TRAFFIC report, the average price of ivory chopsticks in the illegal market is 1055 RMB per pair, only 28% of the price (3733 RMB per pair) in the legal market. The average price of each bracelet is 3911 RMB, only 36% of the price (10893 RMB per bracelet) in the legal market. Meanwhile, compared with survey results from five years ago, the 2017 illegal market average prices for ivory chopsticks and bracelet show a considerable decrease, with a 57% price decline in illegal ivory chopsticks and 25% price decline for illegal ivory bangles. These are indications of the small profit margin in the illegal market; ivory sellers are lowering the price to eliminate the ivory products in their possession as fast as possible.Elephants

In the meantime, TRAFFIC had also found out that the average number of ivory items per outlet in the illegal market is now 5, the lowest over the years.

From both the number of ivory products (the illegal number of ivory products per store) and the price, the illegal market is showing a decreasing trend. The trade ban has forced the ivory sellers to lower the price to sell their stockpile quickly, and this reduction of prices happens in both legal and illegal markets. Many legal stores of ivory products are hoping to use discounts to eliminate their ivory stocks, and illegal markets usually do not dare to put out large quantities of ivory products on display.

Some problems we found

Legal sellers do not have enough awareness: Among the stores instructed to close before Mar.31st, some still posted signs claiming themselves to be state-designated stores for ivory sales. Although there are no actual ivory products being sold in the store, these signs may send a false signal to the consumers that it is still legal to buy and sell ivory products. In one particular commodities EXPO this year, some ivory sellers attempted to sell their legal ivory products, violating the Chinese regulation that requires ivory products to be sold only at designated stores.

  • Rampant illegal markets in second and third-tier cities: compared to those in first-tier large cities in China, illegal ivory markets in second and third-tier cities are booming. There are multiple causes for the situation: first, under the heavy pressure from Chinese anti-corruption policies and the ivory trade ban, the ivory stock is gradually moving from first-tier cities to second-tier cities. On the other hand, with the booming consumption ability of the new-rising middle-class consumers, people are now demanding higher life quality, which gradually brings these artifacts to public attention. Compared to collectors in the first-tier cities, collectors from second-tier cities encounter less exposure to these ivory products. For them, it is a rare opportunity to get close to these products; thus, they think it would make them “look good” to gain possession of them. Third, the local authorities do not sufficiently enforce the law. The forest police’s lack of valid information and feedback also contributes to the market disorder.
  • Using the new social media platform WeChat as the operating channel for ivory business: The Chinese social media platform WeChat has become an increasingly popular channel for the illegal sellers to do business because of its privacy. provision In China’s latest edition of its Wildlife Conservation Law, Clause No.31 prohibits illegally selling, purchasing, and using wildlife products (including ivory products), as well as producing and publicizing advertisements. Clause No.32 prohibits the use of online transaction platforms, merchandise transaction markets, and other internet business platforms to sell and purchase wildlife and its products (including ivory). Hence, using WeChat to sell ivory products is illegal. We also found employing traditional means of controlling internet platforms (such as deleting keywords) ineffective for the WeChat platform. The entire transaction process —from finding target consumers and sending pictures for product verifications to purchasing products—is now all taking place online. This makes it more difficult for the supervising and law enforcement agencies to monitor the transactions.
  • Logistics and package express delivery: Although many Chinese NGOs provide professional training for the package express delivery industry employees, which involves instructing the delivery men how to identify illegal wildlife animal products, several problems still exist in the industry. First, there is a large staff mobility in this industry. NGOs usually provide training for the front-line package delivery man. However, there is a large mobility of staff at all times. It is common for the NGOs to encounter the following dilemma: After just finishing training one group of mailmen, in the following year, a whole new group of mailmen needs to be trained, and the whole process must take place again. Second, delivery men usually fail to discover illegal wildlife products—a result of the variability of ivory products, the difficulty of displaying every single kind of ivory product during the training process, and the close resemblance between elephant tusks and mammoth tusks. Delivery men without a professional background find it quite hard to identify the difference. Third, the “real name policy” in the delivery system is poorly enforced. Although the government requires package senders to write their real names on the packages, the policy often has a poor execution.
  • Ivory stock data: The only known Chinese ivory stock data records a 62-ton, one-time importation from Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa in 2008. Besides that, related authorities provide no other public data about the ivory stock. Even in this year, after the trade ban is carried out, the number of ivory stockpiles has still not been published. It is important to publish and update timely data of the ivory stockpiles to determine whether there is illegal ivory flowing into the legal market.
  • Preservation of intangible cultural heritage: Approved by the Chinese State Council, ivory carving was listed as a state-level intangible cultural heritage in 2006. Although the commercial trade of ivory is prohibited, it appears unclear to the ivory carving business whether this form of art is going to be preserved. Ivory carving is not only an art or skill, but also an occupation. Ivory carving masters produce delicate ivory artifacts, hoping to sell them at a good price. After the execution of the trade ban, these masters start losing their jobs and must seek other means to make a living. There are approximately 3000 ivory carving practitioners in China. We still do not know their future career alternatives, and whether they will stay in the artifact-carving industry or switch to other careers.
  • The outflow of the ivory stock: China has many neighboring countries in which domestic ivory trades are still legal (Vietnam, Thailand, etc.). In order to minimize the loss caused by the trade ban, many Chinese illegal ivory enterprises might seek opportunities to transfer their ivory stocks into countries nearby. But so far no evidence of such instances has been discovered.

Given the conclusions above, we believe the Chinese trade ban to be successful at the current stage. The domestic illegal market is experiencing a significant decrease in the number of ivory products openly displayed and sold, prices of ivory products in both legal and illegal markets have dropped critically, the raw tusk prices in the illegal market are also gradually dropping, most ivory store owners are aware of the trade ban, and there is no intentional stocking of ivory products. But many problems still exist, including regulation violations in legal ivory stores, the rising popularity of ivory products in second and third-tier cities, the use of WeChat as the primary platform for the ivory trade, and the lack of up-to-date data of ivory

We fully support the complete ivory trade ban in the UK, including commercial importation and exportation in all forms, and commercial ivory trade regardless of the age of the ivory.

Our suggestions:

We fully support the UK’s complete ban of the commercial importation and exportation of ivory in all forms. However, the four exemptions of the ban would enable the illegal market to persist. The illegal tusks in the black market would enter the legal market through all kinds of measures.

We suggest prohibiting all commercial trade, regardless of the age of the ivory. Keeping the current policy in effect, which allows the trading of ivory acquired before 1947, would encourage illegal merchants to disguise newly acquired ivory as aged ivory through antique fashioning techniques. Using carbon dating techniques to detect such instances would cost considerable human and financial resources. Moreover, the dating result is not necessarily accurate.

In terms of the four exemptions, we suggest canceling the first two, which allows the continued selling of musical instruments that contain ivory and items with small amounts of ivory. Every culture and race has its unique musical instruments. If we define certain ivory-containing items as musical instruments, then according to the exemption, they would be allowed to transport domestically and import or export legally. The same applies to other items that contain small amounts of ivory. Based on the reality in China, it would be very costly to provide training for employees of the front-line logistics industry and Custom officers. Also, it is extremely challenging to identify musical instruments and items containing small amounts of ivories, which may potentially allow for the trade of illegal ivory.

We also suggest replacing the phrase “their value lies in their artistry, cultural significance, or historic provenance” with “ivory with important artistry, cultural significance, or historic provenance can be displayed at museums and art galleries to present its artistic value.”

We suggest reinforcing the law execution forces. The related UK domestic law enforcement divisions should reinforce their supervision of all cities and markets after the trade ban comes into effect. Simultaneously, they also need to strengthen their supervision of the artifacts and collectibles market in middle-sized and small cities, preventing the emergence of markets enabled by insufficient law enforcement. At the same time, the UK Custom should strengthen its ability to investigate and punish tusks smuggling, to correctly identify ivory products, and to prevent domestic ivory from outflowing into other European countries. Also, the UK government should encourage other European ivory exporters to ban their domestic ivory trade and ivory importation and exportation.

In “Banning UK sales of ivory” from Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs, chapter “UK Business” mentioned the potential effects the ivory trade ban may have on the UK auction market. Therefore, this trade ban does not demand the closing of the ivory auction market or the prohibition of ivory products in auction markets. The Chinese Association of Auctioneers had issued a “Prohibition of auction” in December 2011, which prohibits auctions of contemporary tusks, only allowing ivory products certified as artifacts to be auctioned. We hope the UK Association of Auctioneers can also make such commitments to prohibit auctions of contemporary tusks. This is the only way to prevent illegal tusks from entering the legal market through auctions.

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