The price of illegal raw ivory in China has almost halved over the past 18 months, according to new research to be published by Save the Elephants. The news gives cautious hope that the unsustainable killing of Africa’s elephants – driven by demand for their tusks – may eventually be reduced across their range.
The value of raw ivory in Beijing had tripled in the four years up to 2014, reaching an average wholesale price of USD 2,100 per kilo, but by November 2015 this had dropped to USD 1,100, as revealed in the new study by ivory researchers Lucy Vigne and Esmond Martin. While organised crime syndicates and poachers will still find profits in this price, the trend is a positive sign.
The price reduction is thought to be a result of the Chinese government’s stated intent to close down their domestic ivory trade, growing awareness in China about the impacts of buying ivory and the slowdown of the Chinese economy have all contributed to the reduced demand for elephant tusks.
Following their recent fact-finding mission on the ivory trade in eight cities in China, Vigne and Martin remarked: “We didn’t see a single person buying an ivory item during weeks spent surveying the ivory retail outlets”
Carvers and vendors lamented that the country’s slowing economy had hit sales of worked ivory hard, along with other luxury items. This has coincided with heightened government efforts to reduce the ivory trade, both legal and illegal, in China.
Earlier this year, China’s State Forestry Administration cut back on the number of licences issued to ivory factories and retail outlets. Government sales to the remaining factories of raw ivory have been stagnant this year; some factory owners stated that they desperately required tusks to keep their carvers active. The issuing of official ID cards required to sell ivory items legally have also been delayed.
“Everybody in the ivory business in China is waiting and wondering what will happen next, and are gloomy that their centuries-long tradition of ivory carving may be coming to an end, hoping at least that it can be phased out gradually”, Vigne and Martin said.
During President Xi Jinping’s September visit to the USA, he issued a historic joint statement with President Obama stating that their two governments will halt the commercial trade in ivory. In October Chinese state television gave Prince William the opportunity to address millions of people on curbing demand for ivory, and he spoke inspiringly that China could become a global leader in wildlife protection. All ivory dealers were aware of these events and depressed about the ivory industry, said the researchers.
In Africa there is no indication that the ivory poaching crisis has slackened, and time is running out for many elephant populations. The Chinese government’s strong statements have been a major driver in the drop in price, but this would likely be reversed if the ban is not implemented promptly and effectively.
“The fall in the price of ivory gives us hope, but with numbers of elephants still being killed in Africa we’re a long way from celebrating yet,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants. “Grave threats remain, and it’s vital that the complete ban in China is enforced soon.”
Vendors at the most expensive ivory outlets in Beijing said the government crackdown on corruption had had a major impact on their sales of large ivory carvings, and many of the legal retail ivory outlets had either cut back on floor space for displays of ivory items due to poor sales, or in smaller outlets had replaced their shelves with other carvings as they were running out of ivory items to sell with the requisite official ID cards.
Vigne and Martin found that, compared with last year, ivory carvers and vendors saw very little future in their business and were no longer wanting their children to take up the profession due to the bleak future of the ivory trade.
“If this trend continues and demand for ivory in China collapses, the Chinese government will be seen to have played a dramatic and decisive leading role in ending the worst crisis for elephants on record,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton.
The full study will be published in early 2016.
Photo courtesy of Frank af Petersens