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Unintended Consequences of China's Ivory Ban?

In a move that is expected to improve the plight of the African elephant the world’s largest market consumer of ivory, China announced it will close its domestic ivory trade by the end of 2017. This may mark a turning point for elephants but as history shows, passing new law is no guarantee of the expected outcome.

When the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned ivory trade in 1989 just under 1 million elephants roamed Africa. Though estimates vary, today there are somewhere around 400,000 jumbo left on the continent. Think about that for a moment. AFTER international ivory trade was banned, illegal poaching reduced the elephant population by more than half. The reason? An elephant-sized loophole in the law which allowed trade of existing or older tusks taken before the 1989 ban went into effect. Without any kind of real control or credible monitoring, every new tusk hacked off by poachers was passed off as “old” ivory eligible for trade and the slaughter continued. It is estimated 20,000 elephants are destroyed by poachers each year with African governments doing little to staunch the flow. But as with most economic dilemmas, poaching, or supply, is only half the story.

Elephant tusks are highly sought after for use in Chinese sculpture, name seals and jewelry, and according to a survey conducted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species CITES, rising demand in China`s black market has become the most powerful drive for the illegal international ivory trade.  Often carvings are made only of illegal elephant tusks with surfaces that look old and have a darker yellow color, which may convince potential buyers that the pieces are antique or mammoth ivory.

Demand for ivory products is high, especially in China. Carved ivory has long been a part of Chinese culture as an object of beauty and status, but the government ban is meant to turn artistic carvings into a cultural taboo. Changing the buying habits of a billion or so people with the stroke of a pen seems ambitious, and some have their doubts. And with a large and thriving black market for ivory, the Chines ban on legal trade may result in a cruel and ironic twist. Closing the legal trade in China will certainly increase demand for ivory on the black market, pushing ivory prices even higher than before the ban. Higher prices will result in even more poaching on the Dark Continent which would likely tip the scales to the side of elephant extinction. The only thing that will keep this doomsday scenario from playing out is if China cracks down hard on its thriving black market and shuts down ivory trade, both legal and illegal, completely. It is an economic crap shoot with the fate of the African elephant hanging in the balance.

It is commendable China is attempting to act in the best interest of the African elephant. Here’s to hoping they have the political will to make it work.

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