China to shut down one-third of country’s ivory trading outlets

China’s two ivory crushes foreshadowed the government’s commitment to end ivory trade. Today, over a third of the licensed ivory trading outlets in China, including a dozen ivory carving factories, will no longer be allowed to trade in ivory.  It’s exciting to look forward to the day when all legal ivory markets will be shut down.

In May 2015, at China’s second ivory crush in Beijing, I heard for the first time the government’s intention to end ivory trade.  When the State Forestry Administration Minister announced that China will “eventually halt the processing and trade of elephant ivory for commercial purposes” I did a double take.  

“Did you just hear that?” I couldn’t believe my ears so I turned to an enforcement officer standing beside me. He gave me a knowing nod confirming the statement.

“What does it mean?” I asked.

“It’s going to make our job so much easier.”

To me his simple answer is profound. It proved something we have been arguing all along: The legal ivory market has long provided cover for criminals to launder illegal ivory from poached elephants. Illegal ivory can be easily whitewashed in the legal market creating enforcement difficulties.

Making ivory trade illegal in all circumstances is the only way to shift the burden of proof from law enforcement agencies to the criminals who are making huge profits exploiting the loopholes created by the parallel legal and illegal ivory markets.

Banning ivory markets will boost the morale of law enforcement officers, as well as the effectiveness of their work.

Four months after that ivory crush, President Xi Jinping and then President Barack Obama jointly pledged in September 2015 to shut down domestic ivory trades in their respective countries.

In the waning days of 2016, China’s State Council announced a phased schedule to revoke some licenses by this March and to eventually stop all commercial ivory carving and retail sales by the end of 2017.

Last week, China’s State Forestry Administration published a list detailing the names, locations and addresses of 67 ivory trading outlets to be shut down by the end of March, and the other 105 to be closed by the end of the year.

Behind each licensed legal outlet, there could be many more illegal operations. During a 2011 market investigation, we found 22 shops selling ivory in a shopping mall, of which only one had a license to operate legally. 

An ivory carving factory owner named Chen smuggled 7 tons of ivory from Africa in one year, all under the protective cover of a license to legally trade ivory.  He is serving prison sentences today because of the excellent work of Chinese Customs.

Most importantly, elephants will be saved thanks to this trade ban.

The Chinese government’s ban of elephant ivory, rhino horn and tiger bone from auctions in 2012 resulted in a reduction of overall auction sales volume on mainland China by 40% in one year. Studies show the 90% drop in ivory auctions positively correlated with the decline in the intensity of elephant poaching in Africa.

A new report from Save the Elephants shows a further decline of ivory price in China provides another affirmation of our strategy. To save elephants, we have to reduce both market supply and consumer demand for ivory.

If by banning only one segment of the market --the auction market--from wildlife trade can have such an immediate effect, just imagine how a complete halt of domestic ivory markets can do to alter behavior and social norms.   

Clear and unambiguous policies making ivory trade illegal in all circumstances, combined with vigorous enforcement and meaningful penalties, will support demand reduction efforts by putting a stigma on the menace of elephant poaching and ivory trade. It sends a crystal clear message:

Ivory trade anywhere threatens elephants everywhere!


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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
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