China Just Completely Banned Its Legal Ivory Trade

Elephants are one of the main targets of ivory poachers.

We use animals for many aspects of our lives. We use parts of insects for dyes and whales for perfumes. For a very long time, we have used animal fur to keep us warm and, more recently, for beauty. Many cultures have used animal hides for tools, homes, and clothing. Even now, we still wear leather made from things like snakes or alligators. And of course, we use animals for food.

Unfortunately, humans tend to do things in excess that becomes detrimental to animals we use. There are debates on the practice of acquiring fur. Overfishing is threatening many different habitats as the demand for fish increases and puts tremendous pressure on fisheries to acquire fish. Over 30% of fisheries have been pushed beyond their biological limits and must be strictly controlled before they collapse.

Whether for medicinal or vanity purposes, humans have sought the use of ivory. Ivory is a natural material from the tusks and teeth of animals. It The most common source for ivory is elephants, though other sources include whales, hippos, and narwhals.  Even mammoths serve as a source of ivory as their dead bodies were poached of any tusks. These have become very rare because mammoths are extinct and dead remains are limited.

An ornately carved elephant tusks from 11th-century Italy. It now resides in the Louvre Museum Credit: Jastrow

The Ivory Trade

In 1979, there were 1.3 million elephants roaming around Africa. In 1989, there were about 600,000 elephants left, which was a glaring difference. Many poachers had attributed this to habitat loss and other factors that were not poaching. The obvious truth was that poaching caused the direct decline of elephant populations throughout Africa.

As the price and demand for ivory increased, poachers hunted for more tusks, especially those that were larger. Unfortunately, this led to many female elephants dying because they have the bigger tusks. This, in turn, lead to additional population decline as there were fewer females compared to males.

In 1979, there were 1.3 million elephants roaming around Africa. In 1989, there were about 600,000 elephants left.

In 1989, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) gathered and issued an international ban on ivory trade across the globe. CITES is a governing body supported by hundreds of countries and regulates the international trade of wildlife and is used to protect endangered species from further destruction. The ban was to address the growing concern of elephants dying out because of poaching.

While the ban did work to diminish poachers from hunting elephants, it did not stop them entirely. A report by CITES in 2013 found that over 20,000 elephants were killed across Africa by poachers to support the illegal ivory trade. Illegal ivory trading continues because of high demand for ivory, low wages in some African countries, and weakened governments.

Every year tens of thousands of elephants are continually hunted down. Besides the ban to combat this, many countries and non-profits have also been burning poached ivory, enforcing harsh punishments against poachers, and working with African countries to address the problems that drive the demand.

Many different species of elephants are listed as endangered or worse as their population continues to decline. Credit: BBC

The next step that needs to be taken is to reduce the demand for ivory. China is among the top countries where demand is high due to continued growth.

The U.S and Chinese Ban

As China’s economy grew, so did it’s middle class. Soon there was a new group of relatively wealthy individuals who wanted something to showcase their wealth. Among other things, they set their eyes on ivory. This created a demand for ivory in China to that point that China lobbied CITES for the opportunity to purchase limited quantities of ivory to sell. CITIES relented and allowed China to begin buying ivory in 2008.

Soon, China started to purchase ivory from Africa and ivory carving factories and vendors started to appear throughout China. This helped to address the demands for ivory but did not stop it. As the demand for ivory continued, the government raised the price of ivory. This resulted in a profitable enterprise for poachers and spurred them into continuing hunting elephants.’

To address this and stop the trade of ivory, U.S President Barack Obama and China President Xi Jinping agreed to enact an almost total ban on ivory. The agreement prohibits the sale of all ivory except for a limited number of antiques and a few other items. The United States enacted the ban in June 2016.

China’s ivory ban began on December 31st, 2017. It marked the end of a debilitating trade for elephants and the beginning of additional protection for them.  According to Gao Yufang, a Ph.D. student in conservation biology and cultural anthropology at Yale University, the ban marked the start of significant drops in demand for ivory as well as a decline in producers of carved ivory.

The ban will be enforced by China’s State Forestry Administration. As the work to ensure that factories and distributors are shutdown, they will also begin campaigns to raise public awareness of the ban. Working with many NGOs and other governmental agencies, they will launch social media campaigns, videos, posters, and articles. These will all serve to inform the public about the ban as well as allow agencies to prevent illegal from filling the void of legal factories as they shut down.

A recent survey was done by the World Wildlife Fund and TRAFFIC found that only 19% of individuals were aware of the ban. This highlights the need for continued education of the ban to ensure that subverts the illegal operations and reduce the demand for ivory across China. This will, ideally, reduce the incentives for poachers to hunt elephants as well as drive the cost of ivory done as an additional deterrent.

This is a good sign for the international community and the original CITIES ban as continued support against poaching will continue to reduce demands for products from endangered species. Hopefully, as we continue to develop bans for this and other animals, we can slow or stop the population decline of other species hunted for their furs, organs, and other products.

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