On February 26, China’s State Forestry Administration announced it was imposing a one-year ban on all imports of African ivory carvings, a move that will largely affect travelers returning from abroad with ivory souvenirs. The buying and selling of ivory on the streets of mainland China and Hong Kong, however, continues uninterrupted. It is this brisk, legal, domestic trade in ivory that provides a convenient cover for the illicit trade. Of the ivory for sale in China today, it’s estimated that 90 percent is illegal. Much of the smuggled ivory arrives on ships coming from Africa, where poachers are killing between 25,000 and 35,000 elephants annually.
So how will this new one-year ban on ivory carving imports halt illegal ivory trade and protect Africa’s elephants?
The quick answer is that it won’t, at least not on its own. Without shutting down all ivory trade in China and for a period much longer than one year, illegal ivory will continue to be bought, sold and passed off as legal ivory, while Africa’s elephants will continue to be targets.
This doesn’t mean the ban has no value, however. Its real significance lies in the message it conveys. Whether intentional or not, the ban is a recognition by China’s government of the link between ivory trade and elephant poaching. In one day, the Chinese government managed to communicate to 1.3 billion people what we and our partners—with help from celebrities such as Yao Ming and Li Bingbing—have been trying to communicate to the same audience through a public awareness campaign over the past couple of years.
Moreover, the ban is not the only encouraging step the Chinese government has made in recent years. Prime Minister Li Keqiang pledged US$10 million to assist African nations with wildlife protection. In 2013, the Chinese government implemented a SMS text alert system for all Chinese citizens traveling to Kenya, reminding them through their mobile phones when they landed in the country not to buy ivory, rhino horn or other wildlife products during their stay. Shortly after the city of Dongguan burned more than 6 tons of ivory, Hong Kong embarked on a systematic two-year scheme to destroy its entire stockpile of confiscated ivory, alleged to be more than 30 tons.
Yet, China’s new ivory import ban doesn’t apply to Hong Kong, home to one of the largest ivory markets in the world. In addition, much of the illegal ivory that ends up in stores and living rooms passes through the port of Hong Kong. Over the past couple of years, Hong Kong’s port authorities have managed to seize large shipments of smuggled ivory, but these seizures are thought to represent only a fraction of what is actually smuggled. This is partly because port authorities are only able to inspect about 1 percent of the 60,000 shipping containers that enter Hong Kong’s port every day. As a source and transit hub for illegal ivory, Hong Kong has a critical role to play.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that mainland China and Hong Kong will determine the fate and future of Africa’s elephants. We hope both will decide in favor of a future with elephants rather than merely with their remnants, and to that end, immediately impose a long-term ban on all ivory trade.