The Poaching Epidemic
At the height of the poaching crisis, 100 elephants a day were slaughtered for their ivory. This lead to roughly 30,000 elephant deaths each year. Under increasing pressure from international governments, China -the world’s largest legal (and illegal) ivory market – issued a domestic trade ban on ivory. For a country that viewed ivory as an indispensable part of their cultural heritage, this was a huge turnaround.
Worldwide sale of ivory was essentially banned in 1989, after a surge of poaching in the 80s. CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) placed elephants in their Appendix I category; a classification reserved only for the most endangered animals.
The ban was effective and the African elephant population nearly stabilized, but massive amounts of ivory were stockpiled. In 1999, CITES was dangerously low on funds needed to continue conservation efforts. CITES approved a “one-time-sale” of stockpiled ivory that had been acquired before the ban. It was such a success that when funds ran low again in 2008, they held a second “one-time-sale.”
This managed to raise $15 million but had disastrous side effects. The first ivory auction was sold primarily to African nations. The second sale provided ivory to Japan and China. While it raised much needed funds, it revived the ivory craze throughout Asia; at the time still the largest market for legal ivory.
Between 2009 and 2014, Tanzania lost a heartbreaking 66,000 elephants to poaching. More than half the entire elephant population.
Swaying China Towards the Ban
China had been promising an ivory ban since 2015 and to the surprise of many, they followed through with their promise on December 31st, 2017. Since then, the effectiveness of the ban has been closely monitored. Typically, with reduction efforts, it can take up to two years to see any significant change and it is nearing two years since the Chinese ban on ivory.
So has there been any tangible progress?
Before the widespread public awareness campaigns, most Asian people didn’t connect the idea of ivory with elephants. Ivory was a material like stone, not something that was salvaged from an animal. Those who knew ivory originated in elephant tusks worked under their own misconceptions. Primarily, that ivory was taken only after the elephant had died of natural causes. It was also commonly believed that elephants were rarely killed and their tusks, once cut, would grow back.
Before the official ban on domestic ivory, the Chinese government was facing an increasing amount of pressure from its own citizens. Leading up to the vote, world famous NBA All-Star, Yao Ming, conducted the fight against illegal poaching and launched a massive media awareness campaign. In 2014, three years before the ban, Yao Ming partnered with WildAid to produce a documentary detailing the atrocities caused by the ivory and rhino horn trade.
It was called The End of the Wild.
Attitudes began to shift and Chinese citizens increasingly protested in favor of China’s ivory ban.
The United States is also one of the world’s largest consumers of wildlife and a significant ivory market. Obama enforced a near total domestic ivory ban in 2016 (part of which has now sadly been overturned by Trump) and began to pressgang China to fulfill their promise to ban their domestic trade as well. Facing pressure on all sides, the Chinese government relented.
Post – Ivory Ban China
In 2018, WWF (World Wildlife Fund) funded a survey of more than 2,000 people in China. 72% of respondents said they would not buy ivory, compared to only 50% when the same survey was conduced a year before. It is still unclear though if this is in response to China’s ivory ban or a result of the public awareness campaign. Of the people surveyed, only 8% even knew about the official ban.
Most Chinese citizens seem to have been more receptive to the celebrity endorsed advertisements detailing the horrible truth of their ivory market.
China Customs has launched a three-year initiative to tighten security boarders to illegal merchandise acquired abroad. Famous actor, Huang Xuan, informs travelers via a border control video that it is illegal to bring ivory into China as it is driving certain species to extinction.
Many airports have also been lined with posters of basketball player, Yao Ming, fist bumping an elephant.
These efforts by the new public awareness campaign appear on public media and customs entry points in airports, train stations, and any other place a border is crossed.
Downfalls of the Ivory Ban
While the ban has done surprisingly well in shuttering the legal trade of ivory, it has no hope of success unless it cracks down on the black market. The ban restricted all commercial processing and sale of ivory. State-licensed factories and carving retailers either closed or have removed all ivory from their shelves. When legal imports of ivory declined, illegal imports accelerated.
Even though a majority of urban Chinese citizens have rejected ivory, there are still sects of the Asian population that have no interest in obeying the ban. There is also a great rural populous that are completely ignorant of China’s ivory ban and have not witnessed any of the public awareness campaigns.
Ivory in many parts of China is still seen as a status symbol. Chinese that regularly travel overseas have reported higher rates of buying ivory abroad after the ban came into effect. Many of these travelers are retrieving their ivory from Thailand – one of eight nations that CITES marked as a country for illegally traded ivory. In October of 2018, it was removed from the list. Thailand’s success was due to measures employed by the national government preventing the smuggling of African ivory into the country.
China’s enforcement on the illegal ivory trade is critical to the ban’s success, but China is lacking in this by enforcing few punishments for buyers and running inconsistent busts on traders. The ban has also driven the value of ivory up. Not to mention that countries like Japan still have thriving legal ivory markets.
So, we are not out of the woods just yet.
Conservationists Plead with Japan
Japan is now the largest legal ivory trading country. Japan specifically seeks out elephants with the largest tusks, often killing the matriarch that guided and bound the other elephants together. The ivory is then used to create hanko – a stamp used in place of a signature for official documents.
The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) estimates 262,000 elephants have been killed since 1970 to create hanko.
Japan’s government is arguing that its domestic ivory market is controlled and only uses materials imported before the CITES ban or was acquired in the two “one-time sales.” This is partly true, but it is also true that Japan is not looking very hard. All a trader needs to do to pass off his illegal ivory as legal is have a friend write a letter supporting its legality. This is completely lost on the consumer who has no idea as to the source of the ivory.
But like China, Japanese public figures are calling for change.
Asuka Takita, a Japanese conservationist on the front line of the anti-poaching war, admits that Japanese culture plays a big role in the lack of progress in Japan. “…the Japanese have a saying, if you have something stinky you just put a lid on it.”
Many of the public awareness campaigns that worked in China, which displayed gruesome images, will not work in Japan. Takita stated if a Japanese person sees something gory on Facebook, they will just stop reading it. She has made it her job to not only fight on the front lines but to educate the Japanese about the origins of their hanko through a softer message.
Has the Rate of Poaching Decreased Since the Ban?
There is some good news in all of this. A study released in 2017 found that the mortality rate for African elephants has declined to 4%, down from 10% in 2011. There is no certainty that China’s ban was a main factor in this. Many speculate the decline in ivory demand primarily stems from China’s declining economy.
Poaching is Driven by Poverty
Poverty is the leading driver preserving the illegal ivory trade. The decline in poaching will never be sustained unless the poverty in the surrounding African communities is addressed. When conservationists campaign in Africa, they are understandably criticized by the local people who want to know why saving elephants is more important than feeding their starving children.
Elephant populations can never stabilize until they mean more alive than dead to the people living in the poor communities that surround wildlife reserves. With a lack of education and resources, many are forced into the illegal trade to survive. Once involved, the poachers feel trapped by their crimes, unable to leave their situation for socio-economic and felonious reasons. Every time a poacher is killed, another community is turned against conservation.
Non-profits like the Big Life Foundation have made it their mission to tackle illegal poaching by providing employment opportunities for citizens in vulnerable areas. They have also launched education programs that teach people from a young age to say no to poaching.
Their community-based collaborative strategies help raise over $1 million annually for these regions and has protected over 2-million acres from poaching.
How We Can Help?
If I could do my life over again, I would have gone into conservation studies. However, there are still many ways you and I can help the people fighting on the front lines.
- Don’t buy ivory, even if it was imported “legally.” You never know and it’s simply not worth it
- Buy ethical clothing from brands like Elephant Pants, that donate a portion of their profits to the fight against poaching
- The UK and many European governments still have legal domestic ivory trade. Ivory antiques from the UK are legally shipped to Asia, where demand is driving the poaching crisis. If you live in one of these countries, lobby your government to prioritize wildlife conservation, ban the trade of ivory, and hold illegal traders accountable.
- WWF has many “Adoption” programs where you can provide a donation and receive a variety of care packages, including a stuffed animal and a certificate. At least 85% of your donation goes to the funding that fights for your cause. You can check out their elephant adoption programs here.
- You can sign the WWF pledge to help fight against wildlife crime. No donation needed, just a signature to help put pressure on the government to protect the world’s endangered species. As I write this, they have reached 449,066 of their 500,000 goal
- Besides WWF there are many non-profits that seek out poachers and illegal traders to bring them to justice. Conservation efforts are notoriously underfunded so if you wish to make a donation of any sort, I greatly encourage it. Below I have listed a few that are making great advances in the anti-poaching war and are in need of help. Even if you don’t wish to make a donation, you should still check them out to understand the amazing work that they do and the opportunities they provide:
- Rachel, Bale. “In China, Ivory Seems to Be Losing Appeal.” In China, Demand for Ivory Goes Down after Ban, 28 Sept. 2018, www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2018/09/wildlife-watch-news-ivory-demand-reduction-china-ban/
- Bielicki, Kevin T. “China’s Ivory Ban: A Work in Progress.” The Diplomat, The Diplomat, 22 Mar. 2019, thediplomat.com/2019/03/chinas-ivory-ban-a-work-in-progress/
- “On the First Anniversary of China’s Ivory Ban, New Campaign Targets Travelers Abroad.” WildAid, 19 June 2019, wildaid.org/on-the-first-anniversary-of-chinas-ivory-ban/
- Asmelash, Leah, and Saeed Ahmed. “African Elephant Poaching Has Declined, but Study Warns They Are Still Vulnerable.” CNN, Cable News Network, 6 June 2019, www.cnn.com/2019/06/06/world/elephants-poaching-decrease-trnd/index.html.
- “The Connection Between Poaching and Poverty.” BORGEN, 7 Sept. 2017, www.borgenmagazine.com/connection-poaching-and-poverty/.
- Denyer, Simon. “Japan Is Still Hungry for Ivory. The Reason Is a Personal Stamp Called a Hanko. .” The Washington Post, WP Company, 26 Apr. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/japan-is-still-hungry-for-ivory-the-reason-is-a-personal-stamp-called-a-hanko/