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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...

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.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max 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. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed 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. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn