China’s Plan To Ban Ivory Sales Will Not Save Africa’s Elephants

Hooray! The Chinese government finally came to its senses and announced that after 2017 it will no longer be legal to sell or trade ivory. Today’s announcement was long overdue and highly anticipated, particularly among Western wildlife conservationists pegged a Chinese ivory ban as the last best hope to save what’s left of Africa’s rapidly shrinking elephant population.

China is by far the world’s largest market for ivory where, until the end of 2017, five tons of ivory have been permitted to be sold every year. The problem is that demand for ivory in China averages somewhere around 100 tons annually and it’s been impossible to segregate the limited amount of legal ivory from the black market supplies that have flooded the market. With so much ivory circulating in China, according to critics, the demand for ivory products will remain strong which is why activists have spent years lobbying Chinese officials to eliminate this grey area with a total ban on all ivory sales.

The thinking here is that “when the buying stops, the killing can too” and while that catchy tag line is obviously very compelling in its simplicity, the reality is that China’s announced-ban alone will not be enough to stop this bloody trade. Well beyond 2017, China will likely continue to be a lucrative market for what will now be exclusively illegal ivory. Corruption and weak rule of law in China will act as lubricants among the highly-organized international crime syndicates who will easily import this illicit precious resource. Even if Chinese authorities are successful in cracking down, neighboring countries like Vietnam will also serve as new gateways for ivory traders to transit their cargo across the border.

The inability, and in some cases unwillingness, of governments in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and others to do more to root out corruption should become the new priority in the fight to save Africa’s increasingly vulnerable elephant community.

Just as a 30 year old “War on Drugs” in the United States did absolutely nothing to stem the flow of illegal drugs into America’s cities, there is little reason that a similar ban on a valuable product such as ivory will produce a different outcome in China.

Let’s also not forget that although China is far and away the world’s largest ivory market, it is by no means the only one. The ivory trade remains legal in Japan, the U.S. is the world’s second largest destination for illegal ivory and demand in emerging markets like Vietnam, Thailand and other Southeast Asians is actually going up. Unfortunately, in so many of these countries, cracking down on illegal wildlife traffickers is not a high political priority, especially since there is evidence that senior government officials themselves are actually complicit in the trade.

Weak governance on environmental and animal conservation issues is not just a problem in Asia but also in Africa where sophisticated crime syndicates, working in collusion with corrupt officials, are believed to be behind the vast majority of elephant poaching on the continent. The inability, and in some cases unwillingness, of governments in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and others to do more to root out corruption should become the new priority in the fight to save Africa’s increasingly vulnerable elephant community.

I am personally thrilled that Chinese authorities have finally come to their senses to enact this historic policy to outlaw the sale of ivory. We should all commend President Xi Jinping and the State Council for enacting what is no doubt a controversial and difficult policy change given the significant cultural importance that ivory has had over thousands of years of Chinese history. Our celebrations, though, should be short-lived and expectations should be modest. For even in the short time that its taken me to write this post (less than an hour), two more elephants were violently murdered for their tusks. Long after China’s ban takes effect beginning in 2018, the killing will go on and so should the fight to save these beautiful animals.

For more information on China’s role in the African ivory trade, please click here, hereand here or listen to this interview with Peter Lafontaine from the International Fund for Animal Welfare on the implications of the proposed Chinese ivory ban.


Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden are the duo behind the China Africa Project and hosts of the popular China in Africa Podcast.