Changing Planet

Opinion: How China Could Decide the Future of Africa’s Elephants

By John Frederick Walker

The Chinese have always been clever with ivory.

Qing Dynasty craftsmen labored obsessively over “devil’s-work balls,” arresting carvings of concentric spheres nested inside one another, all coaxed out of a single piece of elephant tusk with infinite patience and incessant, tiny strokes of their scraping tools.

These ivory wonders mystified visiting Western traders, who couldn’t figure out how they were put together.

The current Chinese ivory market is equally intricate but far more troubling.

State-owned enterprises compete with private ones, carving and selling legitimate ivory objects in a booming marketplace that’s also awash with illicit African ivory.

Unlike Japan, which also has a legal market, China’s is attached at the hip to an evil twin—a huge illegal market thought to account for the majority of tusks chopped out of slain elephants and smuggled out of Africa.

John Frederick Walker is the author of Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants
John Frederick Walker is the author of Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants

Elephant poaching, underwritten by seemingly insatiable global demand for ivory, is directly responsible for an unsustainable 25,000 elephant deaths a year.

This crisis forces African governments and international wildlife groups to put resources that would normally go into elephant conservation toward anti-poaching units that are invariably outgunned.

The struggle to prevent a death spiral for an iconic species has turned into an arms race.

Can these illegal killings be stopped?

Well, maybe.

The Key: Working with China

The global conservation community is vocal enough about the bloody realities of poaching.

But is it willing to get real about possible solutions to control the demand that drives it?

Specifically, can it work with the Chinese? It had better try. The country’s sheer size, power, and wealth means that whatever ivory policies it pursues will have enormous effects on the illegal killing of elephants.

Widely regarded as the principal destination for poached ivory, China was singled out by the 176-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) this past March as one of eight countries deeply involved in trafficking of illegal ivory.

China was threatened with trade sanctions after July 2014 unless action is taken to combat it.

How did China get to this point?

Following the 1990 imposition of the CITES-imposed worldwide ban on cross-border trade in ivory, the People’s Republic shut down its domestic ivory market and impounded tusks, although some workshops continued to sell carvings.

In 2000, voicing concerns that traditional craft skills were being lost, the government reviewed its regulations, and added harsh new ivory laws with punishment up to life imprisonment for offenders. (Chinese authorities claim 32 smugglers have received the maximum sentence.)

Beijing began a crackdown on illegal sales, registering carvers, sellers, and stockpiles and arresting traffickers to gain CITES recognition as an approved buyer for legal ivory stocks from Africa.

Along with Japan, China participated in a controversial 2008 “one-off” sale, in which four southern African countries, under CITES supervision, auctioned 108 tons of non-poached tusks. China came away with 62 tons, and sells 5 tons a year from its government stockpile to carving factories.

To feed increasing demand by Chinese consumers for this much-venerated material, 60 tons of long extinct (and therefore legal) woolly mammoth tusks unearthed from the Siberian permafrost is imported each year from Russia.

Carved alongside elephant ivory in Chinese factories, both types are often sold in the same stores.

At some point, the system failed. Corruption, greed, and lack of oversight are all likely factors that allowed a smuggled ivory marketplace to spring up alongside and infiltrate China’s legal ivory enterprises.

Because non-experts can’t readily tell the difference, criminal vendors can pass off poached ivory from Africa as mammoth.

And customers who prefer elephant ivory? They can be duped into buying contraband ivory by reusing identification cards that come with legally sourced carvings.

For Chinese consumers, distinctions between legal and illegal are easily blurred, and misinformation is rife.

Following a wave of negative media reports, the foreign ministry retorted last February that its enforcement efforts had “helped crack down on ivory smuggling and effectively curbed it.”

It accused its critics of looking at the Chinese situation through “tinted glasses.”

The People’s Republic, it seemed, would continue to substitute bluster for action.

Chinese Ivory Trader Convicted

Two months after the rebuke by CITES, Chinese media reported that Chen Zhong, a government-licensed ivory trader who managed legal ivory shops in Shanghai and Xiamen, had been sentenced to 15 years in prison for importing 7.7 tons of ivory smuggled from Africa—the first conviction of an accredited ivory industry figure.

Chen’s two cohorts were also given lengthy sentences.

It’s hard to tell if these arrests signal the start of a genuine effort to root out systemic abuse of the ivory market or are part of a ploy to placate foreign critics with a few timely show trials.

Meanwhile, accounts of rampant elephant poaching in global media routinely accuse the Chinese government of indifference to smuggling, or even collusion with it.

The Chinese know that without ivory, there’s no carving industry, the argument goes.

So why don’t they understand that without elephants, there’d be no more ivory to carve?

Demonizing the Chinese by referring to them as villains or cold-blooded Asian money men, as some of these reports do, won’t help matters since China likely holds the key to the future of elephants.

If China dismisses warnings that its indiscriminate demand for ivory causes elephant deaths as “outside meddling” in “internal matters” and sticks with business as usual, the species could veer closer to extinction.

Then China would lose face. But Africa could lose its elephants.

On the other hand, the Chinese government could decide that the flow of unlawful ivory is not only damaging the credibility of an ancient craft but also doing substantial harm to its national image and its relations with African states.

It could adopt far-reaching measures­, from supporting anti-poaching efforts in elephant habitats to vastly improving enforcement and expansion of its domestic ivory laws and showing zero tolerance for any corruption in the system, including possession of illegal ivory.

And if China really wanted to show its seriousness, it could, with great fanfare, incinerate any contraband ivory found within its borders.

In other words, China could take a leadership role in the fight against illegal ivory trade, one that could be used as a model by other countries (notably Thailand) also struggling with criminal abuse of a legal ivory trade.

Admittedly, with ivory enforcement split across different jurisdictions and agencies, it would take concerted political effort and unprecedented transparency on the part of the Chinese government to accomplish this—especially if it turns out, as many now suspect, that individuals with ties to the ruling party are involved.

But why would China do any of that?

One overriding reason: It wants a steady source of legal ivory, and presumably would be willing to stamp out its flourishing illegal trade, if that’s what it would take to participate in any future sales.

Poached ivory, remember, comes from elephants illegally killed for their tusks. Legal ivory comes from elephants that die of natural causes.

Left alone, elephants will eventually expire from droughts, injuries, or disease, or if they’re lucky, old age.

Roughly 15 percent of the estimated 100 tons of tusks the continental population of 500,000 elephants leaves behind each year from natural mortality is recovered and stockpiled by parks and wildlife departments across Africa.

As long as there are elephants, more is added to sub-Saharan Africa’s substantial cache—now hundreds of tons—supplemented by tusks from elephants killed in traffic accidents or problem animals shot for crop-raiding and endangering humans.

Letting the Chinese have tightly controlled but regular access to this legal supply in exchange for putting their black market out of business wouldn’t be giving them a “win.”

The primary reason to have a legal ivory system isn’t to satisfy buying countries, even if their carving industries have cultural importance. It’s to allow African countries that protect their herds another elephant-friendly way to benefit from them, in addition to tourism, and to help defray the steep costs of their conservation.

Ever growing stocks of legal ivory make it inevitable that African nations will have to be allowed to sell it again at some point, given a thorough restructuring of the ivory trade to circumvent the abuses of the past.

The Solution: Legal Ivory Trade

It’s not beyond human ingenuity to devise a workable, reliable legal ivory sales system.

That’s why CITES, which is currently studying the implications of resuming trade in ivory, should simultaneously engage China and other key countries on what will be required in such a system to gain, or regain, status as an approved ivory buyer.

A well-regulated legal trade, coupled with massive enforcement to suppress any shadow market in poached ivory, could cripple illegal demand.

And what would that mean? Strangling the black market would choke off funding for poaching. In the end, there would be no incentive to kill elephants for their tusks if there was no market for blood ivory.

Elephants can coexist with a well-regulated legal ivory trade.

They can’t coexist with an illegal trade. Counterintuitive as it may seem to conservation purists, it’s time to initiate a dialogue with China about an ongoing ivory trade—one that’s structured to crush illicit traffic in tusks.

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • Salisha Chandra

    It is impossible to understand the continued insistence of those in favour of legalized trade. Please be responsible and don’t continue to stir the pot with these kind of revelations – since Edna Molewa from South Africa has said they are going to push for legalization of rhino horn trade, the rate of rhino poaching has increased to 3 RHINOS per DAY in SA.

    After CITES one-off sale, confusion in the market has meant an escalation in poaching ACROSS africa. If we can’t even handle the one-off sales, how are we going to handle a larger market. There are not enough elephants in this world to satisfy demand – therefore demand must be curbed, as it can never be satiated. The only way to curb it – it’s quite simple really is to ban the trade NOT to legalize it.

    Lastly, are we that inhumane – have we completely lost our moral compass that we think it’s ok to talk about trading wildlife parts. These animals deserve a full and fair life without being discriminated and exploited by human beings.

    No to any form of legal trade. Simply No!

  • Raewyn

    I want a forum where people like me can agitate for the total banning of ivory, rhino horn, tiger parts, in fact all of this activity as it is clear that the legal industry is just fueling the illegal. We need extremely serious penalties as this is an extremely serious subject.
    Are we just going to sit on our hands while Asian nations just blithely allow species to vanish from the planet, rendering it all the poorer for it?
    Time for some truly tough talk on this now

  • Kristy Swanson

    Visual artists who can show the connection between live elephants and carved tusks are needed. Potential customers of carved ivory need to learn how wonderful elephants are, that tusks come from killing them and often leaving orphans, that elephants can become extinct. How to get such polemic art to the ivory art market? I don’t see how the corruption can be countered except for the governments’
    need to maintain face.

  • Kristy Swanson

    Visual artists who can show the connection between live elephants and carved tusks are needed. Potential customers of carved ivory need to learn how wonderful elephants are, that tusks come from killing them and often leaving orphans, that elephants can become extinct. How to get such polemic art to the ivory art market? I don’t see how the corruption can be countered except for the governments’ need to maintain face.

  • Ana Gale

    The CITES strategy proved wrong and has actually increased the problem by fueling more ivory in the market. Only the African authorities can solve this by resisting China and fighting poaching. China’s presence in Africa is devastating at all levels due to its dimension and destructive potential; elephants, land grabbing, environmental disaster, just to name a few.

  • Anne Williams

    It is time NOW to STOP the trade in Ivory altogether and induce China and CITES to make it illegal in China as the other option has been tried and has failed.Also hold Nigeria to book too where Chinese agents abound. Why on earth should be bother about an ancient craft and the greed of the Chinese we in the West have made so wealthy by our need for cheap goods. Do English sailors still carve Scrimshaw from whales etc? There are other ancient crafts they can practise such as stone carving etc. they were equally good at . We should join with Africa toget Chinese carvers to carve the mountain of poached Ivory inspected by EU officersetc so it can be used to conserve and sold ONLY in Africa.When it is used the Ivory and other trades should be outlawed in CHINA and NO country should trade with it until they do. We have exported our own disregard and superconsumerist greed worldwide. It is wholly unsustainable for the billions on earth. It is the sheer ignorance and disregard for living creatures in that so called ancient civilisation that amazes. Ancient is the word. Ancient= ignorance . Rhino horn and Tiger parts for impotence. What a joke. Is that what they needed to breed for Mao!!!
    If you visit that country ask for a Tiger steak as they breed ’em for the table.Money and greed together.China alone will cause vast damage worldwide with its equally VAST and growing appetite for everything. Minerals, gold, jewels. Watch Peru 50,000 hectares of tropical forest torn down by illegal gold miners, mercury freely flowing into rivers.They follow where we led but some of us face reality ,certainly not our politicians All cosying up in admiration to this New World power they helped create to make profits too from cheap labour. Growth forever , is the mantra I hear everyday.The natural world aint growing we are helping so much with Aid to make it dwindle faster especially in Africa.

  • Fiona Gordon

    Totally agree with Dawn Scholes UK – there is a legal trade, via the two “one-off” CITES sales. It clearly does not work for the elephants, does it! The 2008 sale introduced China to the ivory market, and this has coincided with the increased poaching and illicit trade – it is so plain to see. China’s demand is enormous, unquenchable – there are not enough elephants left for China, and recent reports state that there are possibly none over the age of 40 years old remaining. The legal trade in China could not be supported by natural mortality of the elephants that remain – clearly the existing demand is too high. Stop talk of any future sales CITES – abolish the Decision Making Mechanism for Trade in Ivory CITES are currently discussing, this alone is fueling the trade in anticipation of yet another potential outlet to launder illicit ivory into the future. Even the CITES Secretariat General has stated that it appears that the race is on to invest in ivory in anticipation of it being worth more once the elephant is extinct. Currently, there is a trade. It must be stopped. No more talk of trade. Lets get back to the 20 years of recovering elephant populations seen after the 1989 Ivory Ban – only then, once people start asking if there is a need to cull elephant populations (not that I agree with this) could people entertain the idea of ivory trade…..lets cross that bridge when we come to it. We are far too far from that point…STOP ALL TRADE, STOP THE KILLING, STOP THE DEMAND NOW. It worked in 1989! If we cannot save the elephants, what on this earth can we save?

  • Lois Olmstead

    “Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.” Have we not already seen the results of creating a demand for ivory? When CITES released stockpiled ivory onto the market in 2008, all hell broke loose. No! We must do everything we can do to get China to shut down its ivory carving factories and to take a stand against the ivory trade. With the demand gone, the elephants can recover!

  • MarilynC

    I think I want to refer National Geographic to your own published articles that debunk this pro ivory trade better than I can.

    and this:

    Debating this further is only extending the daily assault on the animal. Their numbers will drop below 100,000 at this rate, and plummet to extinction faster than we can debate the trade issue. Enough already. Save the animal from this human caused catastrophe, ban ivory, punish the kingpins with life sentences, jail or shoot the poachers as needed, with sufficient mandatory jail sentences to be effective. And make this cause the priority it deserves to be. We are going to lose this animal, and the rhino, with these useless over-baked human debates. Time to be real, time to realize it’s a holocaust, time to end it is passing by. Right now, there’s a herd running in fear, or a matriarch bleeding to death as she gives a final look to her terrified new born. Debate that.

  • susan farrington

    Perhaps in an idea world perhaps this would be a workable solution. HOWEVER, all the previous posts, save for one, state the realistic reasons that this will not work. Corruption and greed being the major players. We do need to work with China, getting to the people and changing attitudes as well as with the government. It took a couple decades to make it a shameful act to bind women’s feet into tortuous little packages, but it was done. Unfortunately I don’t think the elephants have 2 decades to spare.

  • Abhi Kulkarni

    Yawn…not the same pro-trade BS again. It’s already been debunked. Nat Geo itself. No ivory trade of any kind, period! The poaching was down until stupid CITES authorized the one-off sale. We know what happened after that.

  • Judith Reynolds

    Dear Sir,
    The idea that any form of ivory trade will help save the elephants from extinction is absolutely ridiculous and stupid! The ONLY way to save the elephants from extinction is a TOTAL BAN on all ivory trade! Anyone who buys ivory now has blood on their hands and are part of illegal activity that will surely push the elephants to extinction in less than 10 years!
    Please wake up and realize that the ivory trade is funding terrorism and you are saying it should be allowed……NO IVORY! IVORY = DEATH!!

  • tommi

    wrong. you are very wrong. you sound pretty greedy yourself. probably have some illegally poached ivory hanging around your humble abode. shameful.

  • Melissa Weavind

    Really?? China will be content with only the tusk of elephants that have died have natural mortality or similar, very, very naive, it would never stop the poaching unless Governments in Africa want it to stop and there has to be a total ban on sales of Ivory so that all ivory is illegal. And yes we can do it as long as people like you stop trying to take the easy way out, trade never works, whether its diamonds, tusks or horn, 1.5 billion people will make sure of that. Education and awareness,protecting National Parks with armies and a strong political will, and some Chinese and other Asian kingpins in jail for life would send a clear message! It would be o much easier to say let’s legalize drugs, but its illegal and we fight it everyday and so we must do the same for our wildlife.

  • Larry Laverty

    Under no circumstances, in a world populated by thoughtful and loving human beings, could it be OK to kill an animal just to harvest its tusks. Think about it. Yes, it’s true, we humans will kill one another to take something we want. But is that justifiable? Are we humans that depraved? Are we depraved to the point of justifying the killing of an animal for its tusks? I will always hope the best for humanity and the killing of elephants in Africa for their tusks violates all that man has evolved to thus far. The killing is an assault on the conscience of man. A black stain on human history. The killing must end.

  • Lizette Moolman

    I disagree with the author about his sentiment on “legalizing” the trade. And I completely agree with Salisha Chandra. We have already tried “legal” trades via once-off sales and supposedly they were “experiments”. Not only did it NOT work for elephants, it made matters worse.

  • michael wamithi

    I agree with Ofir and the others who have written against what the article above proposes.There is no question….we must Never again allow one-off or structured legal trade of ivory and rhino horn through CITES. How do you put off a fire by stoking it?!
    I would like to point out to the author of the above article that indeed it might be of interest to the greedy ivory dealer for elephants numbers to dwindle /reducing the overall supply because that would increase the price of held stock tremendously!Also it is possible to continue trade in ivory over many years even when there is no single elephant on earth because ivory is very durable and over time becomes valuable antique!just look at what is happening to mammoth ivory. Isn’t mammoth ivory being traded long after they became extinct?So the theory that those trading in ivory must obviously be interested in keeping elephants alive falls flat….

  • Pat Stillman


  • carl safina

    Legal trade exists. The legal trade is why we have so much illegal trade. Legal trade has been a catastrophe.

  • Nikki Elliott

    Irresponsible journalism at its “best” – legal trade is but a smokescreen for poaching to continue, and far too easy to hide behind. This is acknowledged by Walker, so why the glaring oxymoron? Our elephants are dying BECAUSE of the legal trade – BURN IT ALL!!!

  • Haibin Wang

    I support the author’s idea that legal ivory trade is a viable option in elephant conservation. For all the opponents, they miss one critical point: will a total ban stop poaching in Africa? If African elephants become white elephants, what motivation to African countries and local communities living with the elephants have to protect and save that dangerous species that require huge amount of habitat to survive.

  • Luuk

    I think there is a mistake in the article:

    “And customers who prefer elephant ivory? They can be duped into buying contraband ivory by reusing identification cards that come with legally sourced carvings.”

    This should be

    “And customers who prefer mamoth ivory?”

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