Can China’s ivory trade ban save elephants?

Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Windy Chen; Alli Gallagher; Jiaxin Yu; Shuyue Xu. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.


The story of Africa and its explorers (1892). By Internet Archive Book Images via Wikimedia Commons.Public Domain


African elephant, Lake St Lucia. By Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia Commons. GNU Free Documentation License

Elephants, the family of Elephantine and the order Proboscidea, are one of the largest land animals that now living. The elephant is well known for its’ long trunk and huge body size. They can be found in many different habitats, such as forests desert and savannahs. There are two group of elephants, one is African elephants and the other one is Asia elephants. Due to their body size, they are considered keystone species in their environment. In many countries, such as China and Thailand, the elephant is the symbol of strength, power, and wisdom. The history of human and elephants interaction can be traced back to 4th century BC [1]. Elephants were trained as working animal for centuries. They are friends with humans. However, they are also being hunted by a human for centuries which led they are marked as endangered species in 1996[2]. Even though with the increase of awareness, elephants were then slowly increased of their population, the elephant is still a vulnerable species due to several threat.

History of elephant

Based on the IUCN Red List, the current population of the African elephant is trending at 4.0% per annum. In 2004, the species is no longer endangered, but it is now vulnerable. After China’s ivory trade ban, ivory facilities and their stock have decreased [2]. However, even with this ban in place and limited facilities, ivory is still a traded commodity. Though synthetic ivory has been introduced as an alternative alongside anti-poaching efforts, issues of similarity between synthetic and authentic ivory have resulted in illegal ivory smuggling claiming that it is synthetic and therefore still on the market for trade and/or purchase. But, closing the domestic ivory market across the world has potential to save the elephants as it is a commodity of supply and demand. Through education on the reality of extinction due to elephant poaching, it is hopeful that demand for ivory will decrease and therefore so will the supply. This issue will be approached in the following aspects: ivory trade as a threat to elephants; the effectiveness and loopholes of the legislation; other significant threats to elephants and alternative ways of protection.

Ivory trade. By Frank G. and Frances Carpenter via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Ivory trade is not limited to legal trade, but also several illegal trades in China. There is three type of market for ivory. Ivory is traded in “white” legally licensed retail outlets, “black” illegal shops and online trade forums, and “grey” live auctions of uncertain legality[3].

The white market

Main Illicit Trade Flows of Raw Ivory Shipments and Ivory Seizures, in Kilograms, 2007 to 2014. By U.S. Government Accountability Office via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

The white market in China is stores, factory with license what allowed them to import and sell ivory legally. There are approximately 34 factory and 138 stores that sell ivory. In 2017, China started to ban and shut down several factory [4] And there are 67 registered and recorded ivory factory that was shut down. Moreover, about 105 ivory related store was shut down at the end of 2017 [5].

The black market

Ivory horn from Western African. By Sailko via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

The black market is illegal and most of their source is harvested by the poacher. As the ivory ban was effectual in China, the black market has increased in demand for ivory. The main supply of the black market is coming from organized criminal enterprises [6]. The black market usually found in antique and curio, jewelry and accessory, and gift markets. They are mostly located in Guangzhou, Beijing, and Chengdu[3].

The Grey market

The grey market is the live action of ivory artworks. And it is unclear. As the ivory inter China, it was bought as the material of artwork[3].

Evaluation of the policy


As a legislation policy, there are merely two advantages of the ban which is easy to manipulate and could prevent consumers from buying illegal ivory directly. Government actions include the illegalization of ivory trade in the market and the shutdown of ivory manufacturing factories. All actions including selling or buying ivory products domestically or bring it back to the country will be illegal and punished. The time lag of the policy is short which means as the policy is planted it will take effects instantly. After the ban was announced at the end of 2016, more than a hundred factories are to be shut by April 2017. The reduction in supply restricted the demand for ivory in the market which caused the price of ivory to fall as much as 65% according to wildlife groups.[7] The law officially has started taken effects since the end of 2017, and it’s only been four months. The expert Yu Fang gives “It is difficult to predict to what extent China's ivory ban can reduce elephant poaching in Africa because many factors are at play. But it has been observed that in China prices of ivory products have dropped considerably, and the market is already shrinking.”[8]

Reduce poaching

Although regulations and laws were placed on the trade, domestic legal market has provided the opportunity for traffickers to slip illegally obtained ivory into China’s legal supply. Many conservationists have said that this one-time legal sale helped drive a dramatic increase in elephant poaching.[9] When the market is closed, and trade of products is prohibited, ivory owners couldn’t sell the ivory legally. According to research data by Kenya Wildlife Service, Poaching in Kenya has decreased from 390 elephants killed in 2013 to only 46 last year, and by 55% in Tanzania in 2016 compared to 2015.[10]

International cooperation

Seized ivory slated for destruction in the crush. By Gavin Shire of USFWS Mountain-Prairie via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0.

In 1989, the African was placed on Appendix I of CITES(convention for international trade in endangered species) and trade in ivory and other elephant products among signatory nations. In total, 103 countries signed this agreement of ivory trade ban, while certain countries still allowed domestic trade and imports of ivory known as “one-off sales”. [11]China as one of those and have become the largest ivory market which stands for about 70% of ivory in demand currently.(national)[4] The huge and growing demand for ivory trade drew attention to China’s ivory market has drawn attention from NGOs and the global society. For years, Chinese government officials were asked by a single issue: dead elephants and China was blamed for its “ivory holocaust”.[12] U.S. and Chinese officials have been negotiating an end to China's domestic ivory trade since 2015.[7] The complete ban has won praise from the global society including various African countries as the habitat of African elephants and the source of tusks as well as other signatory countries in CITES. “This is a significant step that should prove to be a huge boost to elephant protection efforts in Africa,” said WWF's Africa director Fred Kumah. [13] This action of Chinese government reinforced the significance of protecting elephants and the strength of the international ban, which also raised people’s awareness of the ivory issue.

Loopholes in the law

Wildlife experts had thought that the ban on ivory trade would slow or even stop the killing of elephants for their tusk which the fact is counter, the killing might get worse. There That's mostly because the ban didn't cover antique ivory, that is, ivory taken from elephants the ban. So people are still killing elephants but passing off their ivory as old to make it legal to trade[8].Retailers might also fake the genuine ivory as synthetic ivory to trade it. Another problem would be the strength of government enforcement to ensure the shut-down of factories and crafters.

Lack of consumer’s awareness

The essence of ivory trade is not supply-side, instead is the demand side. If the demand decreases itself, the illegal trade will reduce with declining price in the black market. Though more people realize the importance of environmental and wildlife issues, problems with ivory have always been undermined and neglected which weakens the policy. [8] The direct Chinese translation of ivory is “elephant tooth,” which has led misperceptions that ivory could be taken from an elephant without serious harm. The nonprofit International Fund for Animal Welfare did polling in 2007 in China that found that 70 percent of respondents didn’t realize an elephant had to be killed to take its ivory. [8] The misunderstanding leads to neglection and ignorance of the catastrophic effect of ivory trade on African elephants. At the same time, ivory has been considered as a symbol of status and fortune for centuries in China while ivory carving is a cultural heritance. The recent report showed an increasing awareness of this fact, conventional values and understandings of ivory carvings are still hard to be challenged which requires proper education and campaign

Continuous danger of Elephant

China has long been one of the world's biggest markets for ivory, but with the ivory trade ban, ivory is no longer a commercial item in China. Buying and selling ivory are both illegal and Chinese government is making efforts to execute the ivory trade ban: 172 official factories and shops dealing in ivory had been shut down till the end of 2017 [14]. However, although China has banned the ivory trade, black market is expanding in other South-east Asia countries. After the domestic ivory ban on the mainland China, Chinese buyers start to shop in neighbouring countries.

Burma, for example, is an active black market for illegal ivory trade with Chinese buyers. Back in 2013, due to the improper regulating of illegal ivory, although there was a spike in seizures of contraband ivory, up to 90 per cent of China’s ivory enters Burma illegally [15]. The cross-border market has been existed for years and the new ivory trade ban in mainland China will likely to increase the marketing activities in those black markets. Another country with active ivory black market adjacent to China is Laos. Like Vietnam and Myanmar, the price of ivory products is cheaper in Laos than in the mainland China, and the illegal cross-border trade is not policed there due to the lack of laws and order [16]. Especially after Chinese government made great effort to ban ivory trade in China, there has been a significant and relatively sudden growth in Lao's ivory trade, and according to an investigation, Laos thus became the fastest growing ivory market in the world[16].

To really protect elephants and stop illegal ivory trade, ivory trade ban in China is clearly not enough. Stronger and continuing international pressure to countries like Laos and Burma is needed, and the government of those countries should also be aware of the significance of this issue and make effort to combat transnational crime together with China.

Is poaching for ivory the biggest problem for the elephants? Yes, poaching ivory is major cause to the species population decline, but that is not the only reason why elephant was endangered. Elephant has long history of being hunted for meat and even many country had ban hunting of elephant, illegal hunting are still exist. Moreover, as the increasing of human population and deforestation, there are less and less space and ecosystem for elephants’ habitat. And also, there are increasing human-elephant conflict, such as domestication and captivity can also be considered as threat to the elephant population.

natural habitat is being wiped out

As well known of the body size of the elephant, their habitat needed a lot of space. According to the statistics, the range of a wild healthy living African elephants can be up to 11,000 square kilometers which are 96 times of Vancouver area. For a female Asian elephant, there can take 400 square kilometers and double for male Asian elephant [17]. However, the human population is increasing with increasing land used. Many forest and natural habitat were converted into cities and elephants lost a lot of space for their habitat. Today's, the habitat restoration is the chief threat for elephants, not only because the ivory was ban but also, the male elephant is the one carry the tusks says wildlife biologist and conservationist Ronald Orenstein. Base on the graph, there are only approximately less than 10% of the habitat remain for elephant’s activities.

illegal hunting (not only for ivory but also for its flesh.

The elephant was not only hurting for the ivory but also their meat. The consumption of elephants flesh can be traced by the beginning of the Middle Palaeolithic. African societies had a rich history of hunting and consuming elephant meat and it was the main role of their diet. The poacher could sell the Africa elephant meat approximately 2 US dollar per kilogram while the ivory is 36-40 US dollar per kilogram[18]. Since the flesh is much cheaper than the ivory, the flesh is much more affordable. The demand the of the elephant flesh is much higher than the supply. With the increasing demand and the ivory are banned, illegal hunting of elephant flesh might become the major and more serious threat to the elephant.

Captivity and domestication for tourism

Leg of a chained elephant. By Vinoth Chandar via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0

Riding elephant is the most popular tourist site in Africa and Asia, especially in Thailand. However, elephant suffering though captivity and domestication. There is a disease that is increasing among these captive elephants. And more, the therapy are not standards [19]. The elephant should not be seen as entertainment venues. During the process of domestication, the elephant has to suffer from sore feet[20]. Moreover, the elephants at the Toronto Zoo have shown signs of health issues. Even though they were then transferred to the West Coast, they were still suffering from captivity. The elephant is the animals that need to live in the wild ecosystem [21].

Alternative to ivory

Although ivory is not necessary for basic daily necessities, it is still traded for art or manufacturing due to its ornamental value. In the modern society, ivory are sometimes carved for jewelry, furniture inlays and piano keys, but all these products can be carved from other substitutes instead of using ivory from haunting.

ivory nuts

Vegetable ivory or ivory nuts are obviously ivory-like when thinking about its name. They are primarily the nuts of the Tagua palm trees which grow mainly in northern South America. The nut can reach the size of an apple when mature, and has a very white, exceedingly hard cellulose kernel which could work like ivory [22].

compact bone

Compact bone is also a most often used substitute for ivory. Bone is a mineralized connective tissue consisting of dahllite, proteins and lipids, which shares some similarity with ivory in their components[22]. Compact bone has the Haversian System, which could be observed on the surface appearing as the Haversian canals. These canals appear as pits or irregularities, and such appearance is often accentuated by the presence of discolored organic material which adheres to the pit walls.


Shell is another wide-used substitutes for ivory. Shell is a calcium carbonate and can be polished to a very smooth hard surface [22]. Exquisitely carved shell could have the same ornamental value as ivory products do, but shell products are often restricted in their size.

Helmeted Hornbill

The casque of Helmeted hornbill is another natural substitutes for ivory. The casque is a hollow, roughly cylindrical attachment to the bird's upper bill and distinctive by its size and color [22]. However, such ivory-like "helmets" are driving these birds to extinction[23]. Helmeted hornbill is now endangered and become even more lucrative since its rarity. According to an investigation in China, the casque of a helmeted hornbill can bring more money per gram than elephant ivory [23].

Folding Fan, Gouache on silk satin and silk leaf, bone sticks, synthetic ivory loop. By the Los Angeles County Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

The molecular structure of ivory is a three-dimensional collagen scaffolding filled with hydroxyl apatite minerals and water(nature). Material chemists could synthesize the molecule to imitate ivory. Artificial ivory was first manufactured in 1865 first to save elephants' tusks from being used. Current technology could integrate ivory with almost standards as genuine ivory while the price of it in China is only about 14% of that of real ivory. There are three categories of manufactured ivory substitutes:

  1. Composites of an organic resin and an inorganic material.
  2. Composites of casein2 and a resin material.
  3. Composites of ivory sawdust3 with a binder or resin.

3D printing technology to manufacture ivory is still under research.

Examples of manufactured substitutes:

Vigopas P71A, Dekorit 203, Dekorit V384, Galalith, Celluloid, Composite polymer, Ivorite, Alabrite…[22]

Risk of Conservation Inequality

Tusks of Last Elephant Killed by Sir W. Garstin (1906). Via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.5

Continuous poaching of elephants for ivory has multiple consequences to not only the environment, but conservation inequality as well. Elephants create trails that act as firebreaks and water run offs, their nutrient-rich manure replenishes depleted soil for crops, they create grassland for other animals to survive and also important for the creation of salt licks that are rich in nutrients for other animals [24]. Elephants hold a large value not only as income generation for communities with safari clients interested in their life in the wild, but also a powerful moral value. In order to stop poaching and address the issue of sustainability, one must consider the economic, social and environmental impacts of elephant poaching and what can be done to stop it. One of the main concerns regarding poaching is the sums of money that poachers are offered in lieu of elephant tusks. Overcoming the economic incentive to poach elephants must be addressed in order to protect elephants and the environment [24]. Asia’s ivory trade ban can save elephants in many ways. Not only saving the species from extinction but also vital ecosystems along the way. Habitat destruction, fragmentation and degradation is a severe threat to elephant populations. With rapid human population growth in Asia, competition for space is high and therefore conflict between humans and elephants results in “revenge killings” [25].

Poaching is hindering habit loss amongst elephants and there is a large concern for the survival of this species. Concerns such as the growing human footprint in Africa also threatens this species as elephant habitats are being converted to farmland, deforested by industrial logging and mining [24]. Poachers are killing elephants for ivory and meat and will also kill the elephant to protect their crops which elephants raid as competition for scarce resources within livestock. Elephant poaching has become increasingly militarized, with political players and corrupt officials complicit in the trade [24].

Who Poaches?

Elephant carcass in Chad 2013. By Save-Elephants via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

On the market, ivory is worth more than gold and therefore poaching is very common. Additionally, most poachers come from local villages that are extremely poor, and use the profit in order to feed families, but, it is the individuals who are high up in the ivory trade really profiting, not the poor villagers [26]. Extinction is the greatest threat to animals that are victims of wildlife poaching. In 2011, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUNC) stated the seriousness of animal extinction by poaching and the dangers faced to the environment [27]. Our ecosystems are extremely sensitive and must be preserved. The removal of predatory animals from ecosystems through poaching results in an over-abundance of prey animals lead to the destabilization and decline of vegetation. This decrease of prey animals can lead to drop in predator numbers because of imbalance in the food chain [28]. Poaching is lucrative although highly illegal, it has become a business with the fourth most lucrative transnational crime after drugs, arms and human trafficking, worth between 10 and 20 billion dollars annually [28].


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Post image:  By Bernard Gagnonvia Wikimedia CommonsGNU Free Documentation License