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Africa, China, Congo, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Southeast Asia, Uganda, Weak States, Zambia

Curbing Ivory Trade Requires Curbing of Foreign Demand

Effectively reducing the killing of African elephants and rhinoceroses depends more on curbing the foreign demand for tusks and horn than on localized national endeavors to combat poachers. Although approaches from both angles are essential, it is the consumer appetite for elephant ivory and rhino horn that propels illegal attacks on innocent herbivorous mammals across the savannah and forests of southern, eastern, and even western Africa.

Ivory is worth $2100 per kilogram, or about $5000 per pound, in China, and somewhat more in Vietnam and Malaysia – the other big consumers, and with rhino horn now worth as much as $12,000 per kilogram in Asia, moderating demand from consumers would obviously slow the illegal destruction of elephants and rhinoceroses in their homelands. Local African poachers usually work on consignment from African and Chinese middlemen, receiving a fraction of the overseas kilogram value of ivory and horn for their dangerous forays. Yet that fraction often represents the kinds of incomes unavailable to rurally-based African men.

During the last five years the African elephant population has fallen by about 200,000, thanks to poaching. Only about 400,000 elephants remain in Africa, their survival being greatly threatened daily by the rampant Asian appetite for ivory and horn. Rhino numbers are significantly fewer, about 1000 having been slaughtered during each of the past five years. About 23,000 white and black rhinoceroses remain, mostly in Namibia and South Africa.

Asian consumers believe that ground up rhino horn and elephant ivory has efficacious medicinal value; cancers can be cured and male sexual prowess enhanced by infusions of ground up horn (actually keratin, the substance of hair and fingernails) and ivory. Even though such outcomes have never been verified scientifically, many Asians still strongly believe in their health efficacy. China has not yet embarked upon a campaign to educate consumers to dispel the myths about ivory and horn.

Asians also value the aesthetics of ivory carvings, ownership of which enhances prestige and signifies wealth. China may hold as much as 100 tons of ivory carvings, plus ivory not yet transformed into objects of art. Ivory chopsticks are also prized. The size of the Vietnamese and Malaysian hoard of carved figures is not precisely known, but it is likely to be but a modest fraction of the Chinese total. Yemenis also use rhino horn to produce traditional dagger grips.

To save Africa’s elephants and rhinoceroses China is cooperating with East African nations, Tanzania and Kenya as well as southern African nations like South Africa. These partnerships have been created in order to supply funds and training for wildlife rangers and other police-like efforts to curb indigenous poaching pursuits. South African and Namibian operations against illegal killing of wildlife have had some modest success but Zambian, Kenyan, Ugandan, and Tanzanian anti-poaching drives have proven less effective.

Three Chinese “seafood” exporters have been in jail, pending trial, in Tanzania for a year. They were nabbed in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s main port in 2014 trying to exit the country with 76 elephant tusks hidden under shellfish. Other ivory and horn smugglers from China have been apprehended in South Africa, Kenya, and Zambia.

Chinese President Xi Jinping promised in September to ban ivory trading in China, but the official prohibition has not yet been enacted. The Chief Executive of Hong Kong said in January that he would outlaw ivory sales in Hong Kong, but that legal change is still pending. When both halts to the import and use of ivory in Hong Kong and China are put in place the demand side of poaching will presumably lessen and in effect attacks on elephants and rhinoceroses should become scarcer.

A Chinese professor who teaches at Beijing Normal University and is also secretary-general of the China Committee of the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society advocates the purchase by China of all ivory currently held in China, thereby making it possible for the authorities easily to identify subsequent illegal ivory shipments and products.

Zhang Li, a professor, regards the purchase of ivory stocks as feasible – despite the significant cost – and fairer and better than simple confiscation. Ivory, he contends, is a part of China’s “intangible” cultural heritage and cannot simply be shut down. Ivory carvers and their suppliers cannot be banished with a wave (as context, there are 46 official ivory carving workshops in China). Zhang envisages officially obtained ivory carvings being given to museums, for display.

Zhang’s compulsory purchase scheme would, he estimates, cost upwards of $600 million. But, he contends that China has in recent years compensated farmers with more than $1 billion for abandoning the cultivation of marginal farmlands. Much more, perhaps $100 billion, has been allocated to local governments to carry out environmental improvements. Less than $1 billion to clean up the ivory trade would be a reasonable expenditure, he contends.

The United States has much tighter injunctions against the trade and even the movement of ivory, state to state. The import or export of any kind of ivory, even the keys on pianos or the decorations on bassoons and oboes, is prohibited.

The U. S. and China have also burned ivory stockpiles in recent years. Now, either following Zhang’s scheme, or another, it is time for China to turn President Xi’s promises into a plan of action. The slowing of demand by official Chinese action will doubtless have a salutary effect in Africa, thus saving elephants and rhinoceroses for posterity.

This post first appeared  under the same title in China-US Focus,, April 9, 2016



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