Artists work on ivory sculptures. Ivory carving is designated as ‘intangible cultural heritage’ in
China is set to announce when it will close its legal ivory carving factories, 18 months after pledging to act.
Last year, the world’s largest market for both legal and illegal ivory said it would shut down commercial sales within the country. But did not set a timeline.
At the time, conservationists described the announcement as the “single greatest measure” in the fight to save elephants from poaching. Wildlife advocates have since urged Beijing to get on with the job.
“The preparation for the domestic ivory trade ban is under way in China,” Zhou Fei, head of the China programme at wildlife trade watchdog Traffic, told the Guardian. “According to our information, most of the legal ivory vendors are developing alternative business. The ivory price of both legal and illegal ivory products dropped.”
Legal ivory carvers in China use tusks imported during one-off, sanctioned sales from Africa. Advocates for the total ban believe it will discourage local demand for black market ivory and shut off smugglers’ attempts to launder poached tusks into legal markets.
In a bilateral announcement with the US in July, China pledged to set a timeline for the phase out of its market by the end of this year. WildAid’s executive director Peter Knights told the Guardian that he believed the government would honour that pledge.
“I think the Chinese government is serious about shutting down the domestic market in ivory in China,” Wildlife Conservation Society ivory trade policy analyst Simon Hedges told a Guardian Q&A last week.
“Our government is serious upon any promise made to the world,” said Wei Ji, an independent wildlife researcher who does consulting work for China’s largest environmental NGO.
Ivory carving is designated as “intangible cultural heritage” in China. The government wants to make the transition easy on those who make a living carving and selling ivory from existing legal stockpiles. The State Forestry Administration, which manages the ivory trade, has completed a feasibility study in which it interviewed many of the legal traders. But the results will not be made public.
Wei said: “There is not much resistance from the Chinese public, because the legal market in China is relatively small. Only 34 manufacturers and 130 retailer shops are licensed.”
But Isabel Hilton, founder of the chinadialogue website, told the Guardian Q&A that the signal from the top of the Chinese government may not be as influential or effective as some campaigners believe.
“China often resists legislation for as long as possible, then acts when the diplomatic costs become too high. But that is not the same as effective enforcement. China is a very big country, Beijing’s reach is less effective than many outsiders imagine, and enforcement may not be a priority,” said Hilton.
The US state department has made strong representations to China to secure the commitment to shut down its local trade. With the US following China’s lead this year and adopting a near total ban on the trade.
But conservationists have raised concerns that Europe’s expanding international ivory exports may undermine the diplomatic pressure for China to implement and police the shut down in a robust way.
“There is a concern among the western world that the longer that China leaves telling us how it’s going to implement its plan, there is an increased danger that they might dilute the legislation that they were going to introduce, said Tusk CEO Charlie Mayhew.
“And there is a concern that the lack of momentum from Europe, and in particular the UK, could provide them with an argument as to why they don’t need to fully implement their plan,” he said.
Europe is the biggest legal exporter of ivory on earth. The number of tusks sold from member states jumped significantly in recent years. Traffic analysis of the international trade database showed that the EU exported more than 300 raw tusks in 2013 and 2014. The EU has only ever sent more than 100 tusks offshore once in the past decade.
Chinese and Hong Kong buyers were the recipients of 92% of the tusks. The data also shows shipments of ivory carvings also jumped in recent years. Conservationists have also criticised the UK for allowing antique ivory sales to continue.
Following his two-part BBC documentary on the ivory trade, environmental campaigner and celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall called for the EU to cease its ivory exports.
“There are now rumours that China might be backtracking, and that this may be partly because it is just not seeing international solidarity on this issue,” he told the Guardian. “It really seems as if China is now saying, maybe we’re not in such a hurry to do this, because the UK and other EU countries seem to be quite happy to sell their ivory to us.” A petition on the UK government website calling for the closure of the domestic ivory market in the UK has already got nearly 80,000 signatures and a parliamentary debate will be triggered when it hits 100,000.
At a recent wildlife trade convention meeting in South Africa, the EU voted as a bloc and helped defeat a motion to put the African elephant on the highest level of protection.
The move was also opposed by some southern African countries where elephants are in their highest numbers, said Wei.
“I think the international environment is at the moment the biggest challenge for China to take further action,” he said. “Although I have no idea of what and when the final decision of our government towards domestic market would be, the decision would come out and would most probably respect the will of the majority of the world and take different voices from range states seriously into consideration.”