A ban on all sales of ivory products in China comes into force on Sunday, a move hailed by conservationists as an important step in the fight to protect endangered species such as African elephants.
The move came after pressure that its vast demand for ivory – seen as a status symbol by some in the country – fuels elephant poaching in countries such as Kenya and Tanzania.
“Decades from now, we may point back to this as one of the most important days in the history of elephant conservation”, Ginette Hemley, senior vice president for wildlife conservation at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said in a statement on Saturday.
“China has followed through on a great promise it made to the world, offering hope for the future of elephants.”
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which took effect in 1975, banned international ivory trade in 1989. China, however, continued to allow ivory sales domestically.
In 2008, CITES, the UN agreement that bans the trade of endangered species, allowed a one-off sale to China of 70 tonnes of registered ivory stocks, said Peter Knights, chief executive officer of WildAid, a group working towards completely rooting out illegal wildlife trade.
“Consequently, the poaching went up quickly. We went from very few elephants being poached each year to about 33,000 a year at the peak around 2011”, he told Al Jazeera.
Supporters of the one-off sale said at the time that pairing ivory supplies with China’s massive demand would decrease poaching and reduce the illegal trade. Conservationists, however, said the move would have the opposite effect and increase demand.
“What we’ve seen is that when the trade is legal, the poaching goes up because it’s easier to launder illegal ivory. Whereas if trade is illegal, then it’s quite hard to do this”, said Knights, adding that “traders were using legal ivory trade to bring in illegal ivory from Africa”.
After China announced its ban on the government-sanctioned ivory sale.s, change started happening immediately. Shops that sold ivory began closing, while the price of ivory plummeted.
Before the announcement, a kilogramme of ivory could cost as much as $2,100. After, the price dropped to about $500 per kilogramme.
More importantly, Knights said, the move has had a big impact in the countries where poaching is taking place.
“We’re already seeing in Africa, in Kenya and Tanzania, that poaching has gone down dramatically. That’s partly because they’ve upped their game against poaching, but also because the demand has gone down.”
This does not only mean elephants have a better chance of surviving, but also African countries stand to benefit financially.
“One elephant can be worth about $1m in its lifetime in terms of tourism revenue. Obviously, if it’s poached for its ivory the country gets nothing,” said Knights.
The new rule however does not apply to the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, where the trade is still legal for at least another five years.
Knights, however, believes that change is coming there too.
“The mainland ban will impact Hong Kong,” he said. “Sure, people can smuggle one or two small items for personal use, but people know they won’t be able to resell it in large quantities in China – and that will lead to a decline in sales in Hong Kong as well.”
Knights estimates that at “the end of the next couple of years it’s going to be really just Japan that still allows legal trade”.
“Unfortunately, they’re adamant about keeping it going, despite buying ivory is a fairly new phenomenon there that sprung up in the 1960s, whereas China has had an ivory-carving tradition for centuries.”
Despite China’s ban, there is still the risk of affluent Chinese going abroad to buy ivory from other parts of Asia – in countries like Laos and Vietnam, where laws are less strict.
“Once the trade becomes illegal in one place, it pops up somewhere, but it’s always in smaller quantities,” said Knights.
“It is a whack-a-mole but the mole is getting smaller and smaller.”