Analysis: China’s ivory ban could boost elephant numbers

China's ivory ban could trigger a boom in elephant population numbers.


The Chinese government’s decision to ban all trade in ivory by the end of this year could provide succour for Africa’s beleaguered elephant population.

Despite bans on ivory in many other parts of the world, strong demand and high prices in China have fuelled poaching across Africa. Lower levels of poaching would help the elephants themselves, African ecosystems and also the tourist sector.

Many visitors to East and Southern Africa are attracted by the mega fauna on offer, with elephants among the most popular attractions. China’s State Council has banned the commercial processing and sale of ivory from 31 March, with all registered traders to cease business by the end of this year.

Conservation group WWF called it an “historic announcement… signalling an end to the world’s primary legal ivory market and a major boost to international efforts to tackle the elephant poaching crisis in Africa”. The ban should also help protect African rhinos and hippos.

The Chinese government’s decision seems to have caught most people by surprise and appears to suggest a big change of heart. International trade in ivory has been banned for 28 years but just ten years ago Beijing described ivory carving as part of its “intangible cultural heritage”.

Its new policy seems to have been born out of two weeks of negotiations at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) meeting in South Africa in October. An international agreement was reached to give greater protection to many endangered species, including African elephants.

Dealers currently pay about $1,000 a kilo for ivory in China, with two tusks from a male elephant weighing up to 120 kilos. Until now, criminal gangs and traders have been able to mix new, illegal ivory with historic, legal ivory, in order to sell it. There are currently 34 licensed carving factories and 130 retailers in China but most trade in ivory is already illicit.

Estimates vary but it is generally reckoned that 65-75% of all ivory is sold in China. The Chinese ban could encourage other Asian countries to introduce tougher sanctions on ivory trading, as well as putting greater effort into enforcing legislation where it already exists, including in Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar.

Population crash

The recent Great Elephant Census calculated that the number of African savannah elephants had fallen by 30% over the last seven years alone, to 352,271. About 100 elephants are killed for ivory every day. Many parts of Tanzania and Mozambique have suffered catastrophic collapses in elephant populations over the past few years.

The measures to protect Africa’s mega fauna have become more extreme. Some Kenyan parks are employing a shoot-on-sight policy against poachers, while a plan has been hatched to move 80 African rhinos to Australia as a back-up population in case they become extinct in Africa.

China’s ban will not solve the problem, as it will drive the trade further underground where prices are likely to be higher. However, the ban’s biggest effect may be to indicate the Chinese government’s displeasure at the ivory trade in an effort to make the possession of ivory goods less attractive. As Aili Kang, the executive director of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Asia, says, China’s ivory trade ban “will help ensure that elephants have a fighting chance to beat extinction”.

The African tourist industry generated 12.8m jobs in 2011, according to the World Tourism Organisation, many of them in the wildlife and safari sectors. Many visitors go to areas where there are Savannah animals, in Eastern and Southern Africa. Pachyderms have been wiped out by human activity in most other parts of the world, including the Americas, Europe and large parts of Asia. Africa has the world’s biggest concentration of mega fauna but most species are being forced into ever smaller parcels of land.

Neil Ford

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