A surprising decision
On 30 December 2016, China’s 'General Office of State Council' gazetted a notice "on the Orderly Cessation of Commercial Processing and Sale of Ivory and Ivory Products". It promised to phase out the domestic ivory trade by 31 December 2017. Not only did it state that it would ban the domestic trade, it detailed how it would encourage the transition of ivory carving skills into other livelihood options such as working in museums and other venues for art restoration related to ivory. Beyond this, the government would strengthen the management of legal ivory collection and enhance law enforcement and education. This was in keeping with Xi Jinping’s signature promotion of China as an "Ecological Civilization" and guiding the public to boycott illegal ivory and support conservation.
Announcing the ban officially in this manner followed a signal of intent that can be traced back to 2015 at least, in the wake of an announcement by the US that it would ban its domestic ivory trade. This was back in an era when US leadership was more stable and mature. China's signal was credibly substantiated by its support of a motion at the 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP17) in October 2016, regarding the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to end all domestic trade in ivory.
Ban, not a given
It is all too easy in hindsight to forget the gravity of this particular historical moment. When China took these first tentative steps to end the trade in ivory in 2015, it was not a given that it would follow through. Many critics, understandably, expected that China had only moved because the US had signalled credible commitment to banning its domestic ivory trade. Few expected that it would essentially become a global leader and norm setter in international conservation efforts to protect elephants from extinction.
As recently as 2007, ivory carving was listed as a "national intangible cultural heritage". In 2008, China bought a massive stockpile of ivory from Africa in a CITES-permitted "one-off sale". The fact itself that Xi Jinping has been able to drive through a reversal on the celebrated domestic ivory trade is testimony to the personal power that he holds within the CCP, exemplified by his recent ability to abolish term limits for the president. Under the banner of "anti-corruption" and a desire to exhibit greater global leadership responsibility, Xi delivered, much to the delight of global conservation activists. It serves the objective of projecting China's soft power into the international political arena.
Tread with caution
Some critics are not fully persuaded, though, and thoughtful conservationists should tread with caution. Shortly after the December 2016 announcement was made, Sino-Africa expert Eric Olander wrote that "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 resources". Moreover, there is a regional collective action problem in that the trade could easily spill over into neighbouring countries like Vietnam. By way of contrast, Peter Knights of WildAid insists that the ban is necessarily positive for elephant survival. He cites the raw ivory price collapse from a high of $2,100/kg to $500/kg, together with an 80% decline in ivory seizures into China. There also appear to be promising signs that Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand are stepping up legislative and enforcement efforts against the trade. Indeed, a recent CITES report suggests that the proportion of illegally killed elephants (poaching) has declined significantly.
Is the ban producing the desired effect?
For the moment, the ban seems to be having a positive impact. There is very little hard data available to ascertain the extent to which legal and illegal outlets have actually been shut down, though. Monitoring and closing the illegal online trade is extraordinarily difficult, and law enforcement officials now also have every incentive not to seize raw ivory that enters the country (or at least not report it): if the figures show a decline in seizures, it suggests the ban is working, and that keeps party bosses happy. But we know very little about data reliability in China, as Foreign Policy Asia editor James Palmer recently lamented. And the latest CITES report suggests that global seizures are, in fact, increasing even while poaching numbers are declining. The secretariat attributed this inconsistency to speculators trying to clear out stock, which raises the important subject of stockpiling.
Speculating a fire sale – the stockpiling problem
We do not know how far Chinese authorities have been able to get in their efforts to seize illegally stockpiled ivory. If hoarding speculators did try to clear out stock because they believed the domestic ban to be credible (and feared prosecution), that would explain the lower prices (and would be an encouraging sign of Beijing’s commitment). Lower prices may result in a short-term increase in the quantity of raw ivory demanded, but this is likely to be mitigated by a stigma effect on the entire demand curve (induced by the ban). Moreover, demand reduction campaigns appear to be gaining traction. The combined effect should theoretically be: lower poaching effort and increased chances of elephant survival (notwithstanding the other ecological risks that the species face).
China's global leadership
China's inadvertent global leadership on this issue has been thrown into stark contrast with the abandonment of any kind of general environmental (or other) leadership from the US. Specifically, a 1 March 2018 memorandum from the US Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew its previous rulings on trophy hunting. It will now allow Americans to bring tusks and other elephant body parts into the country as trophies, "in a pivot away from the support President Trump voiced last year for an Obama-era trophy ban". Thankfully, the British government recently announced that it would ban its domestic ivory trade. The UK had become the world’s largest legal ivory exporter, strongly suggesting that it was a laundering hub for poached ivory. The UK and France will now pressure the EU to completely shut its trade, not only its exports. Japan remains a laggard in this respect, and its largely unregulated domestic ivory market is still contributing to illegal trade and poaching.
Many conservationists worry that the global international ivory trade ban, now complemented by a number of critical domestic bans, is an external imposition on some African countries that could otherwise derive conservation revenue from the sale of ivory. Typically, the mere construction of formal institutions (legal bans) fails to produce the desired effect unless those rules are underpinned by congruent informal norms and beliefs. While the calls for more complex and nuanced responses to the elephant poaching are therefore understandable, there is no time for confused signals from elephant range states or consumer markets. Southern African countries would be well advised to support the global ivory ban. Beyond that, a total EU and Japanese ban would put the final nails in the coffin of a trade that is responsible for slaughtering the world's most majestic creatures.