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Banning ivory sales to China could save elephants

Ivory stored in Malawi. Photo by: EIA.
Ivory stored in Malawi. Photo by: EIA.

Although the international ivory trade has been banned since 1989, last year was the worst ever for elephant poaching, and this year has begun little better as reports come out of Cameroon of hundreds of elephants slaughtered in a single park. What went wrong? According to a new briefing by the Environmental Investigation Agency (IEA), approved legal auctions of ivory by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to Japan and, especially, China has fueled, rather than abated as promised, the illegal trade along with mass deaths of elephants across Africa.

“The decision to allow CITES-sanctioned ivory auctions and a limited ‘legal’ trade has been an unmitigated disaster for vulnerable elephant populations,” EIA Executive Director Mary Rice told the UK’s House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee’s hearing on Wildlife Crime on Wednesday. “The vast majority of seizures of smuggled ivory are destined for China, the black market there is flourishing.”

Prior to the most recent legal auction of ivory in 2008, China pledged to crackdown on its illegal ivory market, yet undercover investigations by the EIA has found that this has not occurred. According to the most recent investigation in 2010, up to 90 percent of ivory sold in in China was in fact from illegal sources.

“EIA undercover investigators met with a range of ivory dealers and retailers,” reads the EIA policy briefing. “These conversations revealed a market free of effective control, with Guangzhou at the epicenter. Dealers spoke of a network of suppliers using shifting smuggling routes, such as via northern Vietnam, and sophisticated methods, such as concealing ivory in metal boxes suspended below ships.”

In addition to doing little to stamp out illegal ivory, the Chinese government, alleges the EIA, has profiteered from selling legal ivory at inflated prices. In 2008, the Chinese government paid around $157 per kilo of ivory, but then turned around and sold it to traders for almost ten times as much. This meant that hopes the legal ivory would flood the market with cheaper sources, thereby undercutting poaching, did not come to pass. In fact, by inflating the price the Chinese government allowed illegal ivory to sell for cheaper than the legal, despite the high risk involved.

The EIA is calling on the EU to strip China of its “approved buyer” status for legal ivory, and call for an independent investigation of the ivory trade in China. The briefing says the “[EU] has been particularly weak on the issue.”

The skulls of a family of elephants that were slaughtered for their tusks in Quirimbas National Park, Mozambique. Photo by: EIA.
The skulls of a family of elephants that were slaughtered for their tusks in Quirimbas National Park, Mozambique. Photo by: EIA.

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