China vs. the Black Market

by Claire Burrus

China announced on Dec. 30, 2016 that the country will be banning its elephant ivory trade by the end of 2017. This is momentous news. China encompasses the largest ivory market in the world, with 70% of the world’s ivory ending up in the country. The Chinese ivory market is the strongest driver of elephant poaching, a multi-billion dollar industry which leads to the demise of between 25,000 and 35,000 elephants in Africa per year. Internationally, many rejoiced at the announcement of the ban, believing it to provide a ray of hope for the future of African elephants.

In China, ivory is referred to as “white gold”. The material has an even higher value per unit than does gold, valued at roughly $1,100 per kilogram. High demand for ivory causes its high value, and in turn  makes participation in the ivory industry lucrative, encouraging expansion. Without intervention, the basic economic principles of supply and demand would result in the extinction of elephants as a species. This is because as elephant populations decline, the supply for ivory decreases, which results in a price increase, as the material becomes more “rare” and “precious”. The price for a product is simply higher when that product is less abundant. Ivory sellers have an economic incentive to perpetuate poaching.

The poaching industry, without any checks, would continue to deplete the supply of ivory until African elephants go extinct because this would result in the highest possible value for the product they sell.

Poaching is the only source of new ivory to the ivory industry, despite international laws against the practice. Hunting elephants for ivory is illegal, and since 1989, there has been an international ban on the ivory trade. Legally, new ivory cannot be acquired and ivory cannot be traded between countries. However, Chinese businesses are currently permitted to legally sell ivory goods, as long as the ivory is registered as being sourced from Chinese stockpiles pre-dating the international ivory ban. This policy unintentionally leaves the door open for the integration of illegally-sourced ivory into business product stocks.  The international black market for ivory has thus been a major supplier of the legal Chinese market. Poached ivory is indistinguishable from legally-obtained ivory, making its sale relatively low-risk.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) acknowledged this problem in their meeting in South Africa in October 2016. A resolution was added to the international ivory ban that included shutting down domestic ivory trades which contributed to elephant poaching. China’s announcement followed soon after.

The specifics of China’s December agreement include a plan to end commercial processing and domestic sale of ivory by the end of March, to shut down registered ivory traders, and to bring a complete halt to the ivory market by 2018. With domestic ivory trade in addition to international ivory trade deemed illegal, selling ivory becomes much more high-risk for Chinese businesses. This could lead to a decreased demand for poached ivory among Chinese business owners, as businesses may prefer legal security to the potential profits they could attain from selling the contraband. It is impossible to ascertain what the effects of this policy will be so far before the enactment of the plan. Nonetheless, the possibility of success has created a sense of hope among conservationists and human rights activists alike.

Elephant poaching is not only dangerous for the beautiful animals it targets, but also for the African people involved in the illegal business. The act of hunting itself is performed by locals who know the land and wildlife best. Their labor is exploited for a tiny fraction of the value of the ivory the acquire. The job is also high risk.

Often the only people arrested and for poaching offenses are the poor locals who engage in the killing themselves, rather than the rich foreign ringleaders who are really to blame.

China’s announcement reflects the administration’s awareness of the ivory problem, and suggests a desire to take further action to protect African wildlife. While China’s ban is a step in the right direction, it only begins to scratch the surface of the ivory issue. It fails to address the well-established ivory black market and its history of crime gone unpenalized. There is hope that the domestic ban on ivory trade will decrease the lucrativity of the ivory industry, causing the black market to take an economic blow. However, it is possible that both CITES and the Chinese government have underestimated the power and secrecy of the black market forces.

Much more will continue to unfold with this story as the year progresses. China will be deciding how to handle the massive quantity of ivory already contained in its borders. Potentially, criminal charges for poaching will surface. Other nations may follow suit in China’s example. Although China is a huge player in the ivory trade, it is not the sole contributor. The Chinese ban is only the first step in what will hopefully become the large-scale phase out of the global ivory game. We must keep our eyes and ears open on this crucial issue.

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Claire Burrus is a junior at Trinity University, double majoring in Environmental Studies with an Emphasis in Biology and Political Science. She is involved in TUFit the Health Club, Greek Life, and LoonE Crew, and has served leadership positions in all of the above organizations. She is currently taking courses and performing research in the field of political ecology in Northern Tanzania for one semester with the School of International Training. She loves to explore the world, meet new people, conduct research, make art, and write.

The photo above shows African Elephants in Sweetwater National Parks Kenya. It was taken by Jan Arkesteijn and is in the public domain. It can be found here.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no institutional positions on matters of policy or opinion

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