Ivory goods seized by Chinese customs in October, courtesy the Chinese government
This morning, China crushed a 6.1 metric ton stockpile of illegal ivory, a big step for a country that's been labeled one of the world's worst wildlife offenders. Following just two months after a similar crushing ceremony in the US and the Philippines before that, it's a sign that such grand gestures are gaining popularity, and good news for embattled elephants.
With some 22,000 elephants killed in 2012, conservation efforts are more urgent than ever, especially in the face of increasingly sophisticated crime networks dealing in the wildlife trade. The central problem can be summed up fairly simply: High demand for ivory products in Asia, and especially China, the world's largest ivory market, have sent prices skyrocketing, and fueled a poaching economy that's become more militarized. Because poachers and smugglers have gotten better funded and more advanced, stopping either with direct enforcement action has been limited in success.
Today's crushing ceremony has been touted by Chinese officials and conservationists as proof that the country is taking ivory smuggling seriously after years of being fairly blamed for not doing enough to stem the trade of ivory within the country.
“This is a potentially game-changing development for elephants, and an indicator of a new resolve from the government of China to crack down on illegal killing of wildlife," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. "With both China and the United States—the two largest ivory-consuming countries—taking very public actions against the ivory trade, we hope that the plans of elephant poachers are upended in a dramatic way.”
However, it's notable that China's crush only included seized, illegal ivory, and that legal ivory remains in the country. The international ban on ivory trade dates back to 1989, but under the ban, ivory has expanded to an industry worth billions, largely because it isn't always illegal. Pre-ban ivory can still be traded, and China, among others, is home to a legal stockpile supplemented by legal one-time auctions in 1999 and 2008 that sent ivory to "accredited traders" for regulated sale.
Some officials hoped that legalizing some ivory would help quell demand, but instead it did quite the opposite: the auctions not only revived flagging demand, they added speculation to the mix, with consumers scrambling to get their hands on rare ivory and inflating prices. With higher prices, poaching rates increased, and the legalization of some ivory made laundering illegal ivory an easier task than if it was banned across the board.
While they're not direct analogs, it's fair to compare the wildlife trade—which is one of the largest illicit markets globally—to the drug trade, which remains the largest. There, high demand and a matrix of heavy enforcement, semi-legality, and corruption have left complete prohibition an impossible goal. The US, which itself took a much heavier focus on the wildlife trade in 2013, has signaled that it plans to tackle the wildlife trade much like it's handling the drug trade, meaning more funding for enforcement efforts abroad.
If crackdowns alone can't kill the trade—and it's impossible to arrest every poacher and catch every shipment—eliminating demand and pulling the bottom out of the market will. That's why heavily publicized busts and destruction of seized property (again, hallmarks of the drug trade) are so important. Sure, they're largely symbolic; the US's ivory stockpile was already tightly locked away before the crush.
Still, that symbolism is key. Showing potential market participants that ivory is an undesirable product fueled by the wholesale slaughter of elephants will go a long way towards cooling the market, which has a positive feedback effect on enforcement; if ivory is worth less, it's worth less risk trying to beat enforcement officials.
“We also hope this event will raise the public awareness of conservation, and intensify the responsibilities of enforcement agencies,” Zhao Shucong, director of the State Forestry Administration, told the Washington Post.
It's hard to understate how powerful these awareness efforts can be. China's shark fin market, long thought to be unflappably resilient, has declined heavily in the face of smart awareness campaigns that highlight the environmental impact of their trade. If China steps up its own anti-ivory rhetoric, the positive effects of declining demand could carry through to other policy changes aimed at protecting elephants. If the Chinese internet is any indicator, it appears elephant conservation is becoming more popular.
That said, China crushing a stockpile of illegal ivory may have positive awareness effects, but it still leaves the problem of China's half-legal ivory. As long as some ivory is legal in the country, ivory laundering—in which illegal ivory is passed off as pre-ban—will remain a problem. "It's difficult, too, to see beyond today's event as a PR exercise when considering that the 6.2 tonnes of ivory crushed represents a small fraction of what we know has been seized in China," noted the Environmental Investigation Agency in a release.
Chinese officials and consumers would like to believe that the old legal stockpile can simply be traded back and forth without killing new elephants for fresh ivory, but that's simply not possible. As long as there's legal ivory for sale and consumers who will pay top dollar for it, poachers will try to make a buck flipping illegal product.
Unlike the drug trade, legalization isn't an option; whatever your moral feelings on hunting them, elephants aren't marijuana, and simply can't be grown fast enough to satisfy demand. The only option is to go the other direction and fully ban ivory products. China destroying seized, illegal ivory only increases the worth of the ivory that's left in the country, which increases demand and speculation. But if China crushed all its ivory—either through a complete ban and seizures, or through a buyback program—it'd be stating clearly the the ivory days are over.
It's doubtful that poaching can be eliminated altogether, but it's a numbers game. If demand falls and enforcement succeeds, the poaching rate could be lowered enough to have negligible impact on the elephant population as a whole. Lowering demand through enforcement efforts is perhaps the most important aspect. But symbolic crushing efforts aside, eliminating the opaque market for legal ivory is crucial to deflating the market as a whole.