Thanks to a booming economy coupled with a legal system in China that encourages illegal ivory trade, the African elephant population is facing a severe crisis, according to a detailed new survey released Tuesday.
Fueled in large part by growing numbers of middle-class consumers in China, global ivory prices have soared and helped spark the ivory-motivated killings of 100,000 elephants between 2010 and 2012, according to Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, a nonprofit that funded the study.
“The legal system of ivory sales enables the mass smuggling and selling of illegal ivory, and that’s stimulating poaching,” Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid, a San Francisco-based charity against wildlife products, said.
Since 2010, the price of elephant tusks has tripled, spurring both legal and illegal suppliers. The number of authorized factories and retail outlets has quadrupled in the past decade, but they are heavily outnumbered by illegal outlets in the major urban markets of Beijing and Shanghai, the survey found. In Beijing, at least 78 percent of the outlets were illegal, while in Shanghai 106 out of 119 outlets — 89 percent — were illegal.
The Chinese government has tried to curb the illegal trade, closing closed down at least 10 factories and retail outlets, jailing hundreds of dealers and sentencing 37 smugglers to life in prison, according to the study. But the crackdown has not stopped the illegal trade that occurs through legal outlets, prompting ivory market researchers Lucy Vigne and Esmond Martin to call the government’s enforcement of legal ivory trade “out of control.”
Outside experts say curbing the black market in ivory while allowing legitimate trade to proceed won’t be easy.
“[China has] already taken some very important steps to crack down on enforcement within the country,” Andrew Wetzler, director of Natural Resources Defense Council’s land and wildlife program, said in an interview. “But what we’re finding in China is the same thing that we found in the United States, … namely that the existence of legal markets facilitates the existence of illegal markets. It makes it very, very difficult to eliminate them.”
The U.S. is the second largest market for legal ivory after China.
Mr. Knights says the only practical solution is to close down the private market entirely.
“All commercial sales should be closed down,” he said. “If you’re going to have any trade, it should be a significant burden to prove that ivory was legally obtained because, right now, basically as soon as the ivory leaves the retail store, there’s no control whatsoever.”
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species banned ivory trade in 1989, but in 2008, it allowed China to buy a quota of 62 metric tons. This stimulated legal sales, but the modified system has proven incapable of preventing illegal trade as well.
“To reverse that position, to stop those legal sales, one would assume that something similar to what happened in 1989 would then happen,” Mr. Knights said. “The demand would go down, the ability to advertise and promote these products in retail outlets would be gone and that would suppress the demand.”
Mr. Douglas-Hamilton argued that a blanket ban might be the African elephants’ only hope of survival.
“China holds the key to the future of elephants,” he said. “Without China’s leadership in ending demand for ivory, Africa’s elephants could disappear from the wild within a generation.”