31 March 2017
On 31st March the last of China’s legal ivory factories will close.
China is widely seen as the biggest marketplace for ivory, and the major driver of global demand which is fuelling the poaching crisis facing elephants across Africa. The Born Free Foundation ,and our sister organisation, Born Free USA, believe that the closure of China’s factories represents a vital first step in a process which will culminate in licensed retail outlets being shut down across the entire country by the end of 2017.
According to a recent report by Save the Elephants, the price of raw ivory in China has already fallen by about two thirds over the past 2 years from around $2,100 per kg to around $730. It is hoped this clear message from the Chinese authorities, that commercial trade in ivory will no longer be acceptable, will discourage potential buyers and help make future ivory poaching and trafficking unprofitable and untenable.
Elephant populations across Africa have plummeted from maybe 10 million a century ago, to not much more than 400,000 today. As many as 30,000 elephants are being slaughtered for their ivory each year by poachers, and populations continue to fall by around 8% each year. If this decline continues, elephants could disappear altogether from much of the African continent over the coming years.
Of course it’s not just a numbers game. Elephants are highly intelligent, social and emotional animals, and the anguish and suffering being inflicted on individual elephants and their families is unimaginable. In addition they are widely-regarded by experts as habitat managers. Indeed numerous plants rely on elephants as part their germination process.
Elephant poaching also damages local ecotourism industries, and the involvement of criminal syndicates in the trade sustains social, political and economic instability in some of the most vulnerable parts of Africa.
International commercial trade in ‘new’ ivory was banned under CITES in 1989. But that doesn’t mean there is no legal trade. Many countries continue to allow ivory to be traded domestically, and there is a significant international trade in so-called ‘pre-convention ivory’ (ivory obtained before the CITES ban came into force). Despite warnings from organisations such as Born Free, CITES has also permitted ‘one-off’ commercial sales of large government-held ivory stockpiles from southern Africa to China and Japan, legitimising the product in the eyes of consumers, and fuelling demand.
Born Free firmly believes that any legal trade in ivory stimulates interest and demand, and provides a mechanism by which illegal ivory can be laundered into trade.
Only by banning all commercial trade and sending a strong and clear message to consumers that the trade in ivory from any source is unacceptable, can we hope to stem the elephant poaching crisis.
So while the news from China is very welcome, China isn’t the only marketplace for ivory. We need other countries to follow the lead being set by China and the United States (which introduced a ‘near total ban’ last year). Hong Kong has announced its intention to close its ivory markets within five years, and we are urging the new Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, Carrie Lam, to accelerate that process and bring it into line with mainland China’s commitment to close its domestic market by the end of this year.
Lamentably, the UK and European Union as a whole are lagging behind, and remain major sources of worked ivory in international trade. The UK alone declared exports of around 25,000 ivory items over the past decade, many of which were destined for the Far East.
In its last two election manifestos the Conservative Party committed to shutting down the domestic ivory market, and we know that current and former Foreign Secretaries, and a former Environment Secretary, together with numerous conservation professionals and wildlife trade experts, including the Born Free Foundation, have been urging the Government to make good on this commitment, but so far to no avail. Indeed the ‘public consultation’ process announced late year has failed to materialise.
Next year Britain will host the fourth in a series of high-level international Illegal Wildlife Trade meetings, which were initiated by former Foreign Secretary Lord Hague and Prince William in 2014.. If our government wants to remain at the forefront of these efforts, it needs to make good on its manifesto commitments and on the Resolutions to which it signed up to at the World Conservation Congress and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species meetings last year, by introducing a comprehensive ban on the commercial trade in ivory into, out of, and within our shores. We must also persuade our European Union partners to do the same as a matter of urgency.
Of course, there will be those who may be affected by such a ban whose activities don’t contribute in any way to elephant poaching, such as musicians who use antique instruments which include small amounts of ivory, or museums that display items of significant historical or cultural importance that contain some ivory. Their concerns will need to be addressed.
But Born Free and the great majority of citizens worldwide believe the lives and the very future of wild elephants are far more important and valuable than trinkets and carvings made from their teeth.