The last legal shipment of ivory from Africa to China and Japan was approved of in 2008, and sent in 2009. CITES decided that no further exports would occur until a Decision-Making-Mechanism (DMM) was designed and approved of. This was supposed to take 8-9 years. It still hasn’t been approved. To some extent this stymied the proposal of Tanzania at the Bangkok CITES meeting to get approval to put their stockpile on the market.
The quantity of ivory imported by China and Japan, has had to be rationed out over a decade. This has greatly hindered the supply-side effect of this on the black-market. If you’re only putting in 4-5 tons of legal ivory a year, you’re a minor and small player now. The illegal market is much larger. We have some 30-40 tons of raw ivory being seized annually now, and a lot more must be getting through.
So this comes back to can we reduce demand for ivory? This after all was what the 1989 CITES decision to list African elephants on Appendix I was supposed to do. It’s what ivory-destruction- going back to Kenya’s burn of 12 tons in 1989- was supposed to do. And in some markets- notably the US and Europe, demand for ivory has fallen.
Is it going to work in China? Demand for ivory has fallen in Japan. In Japan demand for ivory was driven by a name-seal or hanko. This was given to young people upon maturity and was used for signing documents and other financial instruments. Demand has fallen because with an aging population, there’s less of that demographic. It’s also fallen because of financial-innovations. With a lot more transactions occurring electronically, hankos have less demand.
In China the main demographic is getting larger and growing wealthier. There’s also a much broader range of products sold in China. The cultural element is also much more significant than the US or Europe. Ivory has been a highly valued product in China for centuries. If demand for ivory is going to fall in China, it’ll likely do so slowly and over a great many years.
Figure 1: Ivory Carving (about 1 m long)
I don’t see that the blanket ‘kill-demand’ approach is going to work here. So if we’re going to try demand reduction, then I think we need to be a bit more strategic. What I think we need as the first step, is shifting demand out of the illegal-market into the legal. The reasons are as follows.
- The legal market is dominated by a small number of producers with market-power. They already use that to reduce demand- by pushing prices higher. High prices are a good way to reduce demand, and these guys are doing it. So you’d end up with less ivory sold than now, at higher prices.
- It doesn’t fight centuries of cultural tradition. Education campaigns have been ongoing in China since 1996. I think we have to recognise that this is not the USA. Ivory carvings are in some ways, like whale-bone carvings in NZ. There’s a cultural component that isn’t going to disappear because people from other cultures don’t approve.
- It saves face for the Chinese. State policy in China is to nurture an ivory-carving industry to preserve an artisanal tradition. This support the legal, kill the illegal, gives the Chinese a palatable compromise solution.
- It sustains a reason for enforcement. The political reality in China is the guys that manage the legal ivory trade, aren’t the guys that do the enforcement. There’s about three agencies involved (Police, Customs, SFA). Policing the illegal market depends on incentives. There’s not a lot of evidence that the police care a great deal about the sale of illegal ivory. The fate of Africa’s elephant populations isn’t something they find gripping. Enforcement happens because there are political reasons for doing so, and part of that political-aspect is the existence of the legal market. If there is no legal market to try to protect or perpetuate, it’s hard seeing who is left with a strong inventive to combat the illegal.