By Caitlin Hamilton, Contributing Editor
Earlier this year on the eve of Prince William’s royal visit to China, the Chinese State Administration of Forestry declared a one-year ban on the trade of carved ivory products.
Yet I cannot help but feel that the move played by the Chinese government to impose this ban is a half-hearted nod towards appeasing the second in line to the British throne. After all, Prince William has long been an advocator for banning the ivory trade: he is the royal patron of TUSK, an organisation dedicated to initiating and funding conservation programmes throughout Africa.
According to data collected by National Geographic, the amount of illegal ivory goods seized from China over the past twenty years were the highest of all Asian countries-–more than double that of Thailand, ranked in second place.
So what will a mere yearlong ban in the Chinese market really accomplish? I wonder whether, in a country where ivory is already a sought-after commodity, this ruling may result in a surge in demand when the ban is lifted in a few short months. Coming from a zoology background, and having spent many months working and volunteering abroad on various conservation projects, I have spoken with people from all backgrounds about this topic. What surprised me in the beginning was how many of these avid animal lovers suggested that ivory trade be made totally legal.
What may sound counterintuitive in the first hearing, soon makes sense when you think about it: reducing the demand for ivory is the only way to prevent the continued mass slaughter of tusked animals. The International Trade on African Elephants argue that legalising the trade would decrease the market rate of the ivory products, which would lower the incentives for poaching. Dan Stiles, who works for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), argues that: “With a legal raw ivory trade, elephants can thrive.”
Much of the obsession over ivory, and the products crafted from it, stem from the sheer novelty value. A comparison may be made to the forbidden fruit of Eden–people desire what they cannot and should not have.
Owning ivory is a status symbol for many in China, and as such there is a huge demand for ivory products in the country. The New York Times wrote that 70 per cent of the world’s illegal ivory makes its way to China, and for those who are willing and able to pay, it is easy to come by–the country is known for its incredibly lax ivory import controls. In a leaked report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), it was shown that the country could not account for 121 tons of ivory–that is the equivalent of tusks from 11,000 elephants.
The procedure of organising the illegal poaching, killing, and mutilating of these animals is a risky one. The subsequent packaging and smuggling of the goods out of one country and into another requires skill. The cogs in this mill are fuelled by money and greed, and by the time the ivory reaches its destination it is accompanied by a bloodthirsty tale. A kilogram of illegal ivory now reaches more than $1,600 in China, a price that has tripled in three years alongside an increase in affluent Chinese middle-class citizens who desire exotic trophies.
If suddenly everyone and anyone could legally purchase a product made from ivory, than the novelty and status may dwindle. No longer would owning an ivory chess set impress dinner guests, and perhaps people may ponder to spend their savings on some other equally shiny object.
This forbidden fruit effect has been seen before. When cigarette smoking was prohibited in a few states back in the 1890s, it was found that cigarette usage declined for the first few years, but then steadily increased afterwards, despite the ban. Rather now warnings are given against the perils of smoking, and the country has seen a decline since 1965. If potential buyers and traders were warned of the effects of poaching, perhaps demand in the ivory trade would dwindle too.
The WWF believe that over 100,000 elephants were killed for their ivory tusks in the past three years alone. Populations of African elephants are estimated at 700,000 on a good day and as little as 400,000 on a bad one. Going with a conservative guess, we may be without these magnificent animals in twenty years.
Whatever the future of ivory trading–whether it be its legalisation, or more stringent regulations set in place for its trade–it is clear that the role that China plays will be crucial.
Founder of Save the Elephants, Iain Douglas-Hamilton gave a rather poetic quote, which I think sums this debate up poignantly: “Although half a world away, China holds the key to the future of the African elephant.”
Image Credit: Kelly Calagna, Managing Editor