The price of raw, illegal ivory has almost halved in China in the past 18 months because of growing public awareness, a promise from President Xi Jinping to ban the trade, a far-reaching anti-corruption drive and a slowing economy, according a new study by Save the Elephants.
Falling demand in the world’s largest ivory market throws a lifeline to Africa’s dwindling elephant populations, even if there is no sign yet of an end to the poaching crisis that has seen tens of thousands of elephants slaughtered every year.
As China grew ever more wealthy, the value of raw ivory here had tripled in the four years up to 2014, reaching an average wholesale price of $2,100 per kilogram. But Xi’s pledge to ban the trade, backed up by public awareness campaigns, seems to have turned the tide.
By November 2015, the price had dropped to $1,100, the study found.
“I am hugely encouraged by this, but I am also very wary because I know how these things can drift with the pendulum of concern,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, one of the world’s most renowned elephant conservationists and founder of Save the Elephants. “What we are seeing by and large is that the uncontrolled killing of elephants is continuing in most of Africa, although there are some bright spots.”
Douglas-Hamilton said he believed Xi’s pledge to ban the domestic trade in ivory – made in conjunction with President Obama last September -- had been crucially important in driving down demand. While he said he was excited by the leadership being shown by China and the United States, he added it was “really vital” that Xi’s promise is put into law as soon as possible.
“We understand some ivory had been bought by speculators who may have been counting on the elephant being severely diminished or even going extinct, so they would be sitting on a pile of ivory they could profit from,” he said. “If President Xi has said all of this is going to be illegal anyway, suddenly they may have taken a very bad risk.”
The report’s authors, Lucy Vigne and Esmond Martin, said they had not seen a single item of ivory changing hands during weeks of fact-finding in eight Chinese cities. Carvers and vendors complained that an economic slowdown – coupled with an anti-corruption campaign that has reduced the sales of all luxury goods – had hit the ivory trade hard, they said.
An intricately carved ivory item has been both a status symbol and a popular gift to grease the wheels of business, but changing attitudes and the crackdown on corruption may have undercut that source of demand.
Campaigns led by WildAid, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the African Wildlife Foundation and Save the Elephants, supported by Chinese state media and private companies, and fronted by local celebrities like basketball star Yao Ming, appear to have had a major impact.
State-owned media alone have contributed $42 million worth of airtime to the campaign, WildAid said: in March, China Central Television aired a single public service announcement with Yao Ming, Prince William and British soccer player David Beckham an incredible 71 times in one day.
An IFAW survey showed the proportion of people who intended to buy ivory had fallen from seven percent in 2013 to just one percent in 2015. A WildAid study also showed a dramatic increase in the number of people who believe elephant poaching is a problem, from 47 percent in 2012 to 71 percent in 2014.
“The halving of ivory prices in China is a vital first step in ending Africa’s ivory crisis,” said WildAid CEO Peter Knights. “Though there is much work to be done, this is good news for Africa’s elephants, and the Chinese government should be credited for this progress. There’s light at the end of the tunnel for elephants, instead of extinction.”
In October, a senior U.S. government wildlife official said China’s ban on the ivory trade could be in place within a year or so, describing it as a “huge deal.”
But IFAW’s Asia regional director Grace Gabriel said there was still some resistance within the Chinese government to the idea of buying back existing stockpiles of legal ivory, with some officials preferring to let stocks run out more gradually.
That gradualist approach, she warned, could spark a “buying frenzy” as traders look to shift as much ivory as possible before a ban is put in place. “Any delay in implementing a trade ban is a very dangerous prospect,” she said.
China retains a small stock of legal ivory purchased in 2008, which it has been gradually supplying to carving workshops. But this legal trade, experts say, has provided cover for a vast underground illegal trade.
Even if a ban is implemented in China, some experts warn that trade could shift across the border into neighboring Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar, where large numbers of outlets already exist supplying endangered wildlife products to Chinese consumers. Some traders may also be preparing to pass off elephant ivory as legal mammoth ivory.
"The biggest challenge is enforcement," said Aili Kang, director of the Asia Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society, who is helping to lead a multi-expert study for the Science for Nature and People partnership into the illegal ivory trade in China, with a view to advising the Chinese government on how best to implement a ban.
Douglas-Hamilton is co-author of a study that found that 100,000 elephants had been killed for their tusks in Africa between 2010 and 2012. He said the latest research showed that “the rates of killing right up to the end of 2014 have not changed significantly for the better,” although there had been a reduction in poaching in Kenya.
“It’s a long fight,” he said. “We’ve been through this before, back in the eighties. We beat it then, so we’ve got to try and beat it again.”
Watch this video of leading Chinese actress Li Bingbing visiting Africa and learning about the poaching crisis for herself.