Yao Ming walks with a baby elephant in Africa. The basketball star played a key role in the PR campaign against sales of ivory in China. Photo: WildAid
Yao Ming walks with a baby elephant in Africa. The basketball star played a key role in the PR campaign against sales of ivory in China. Photo: WildAid

Many countries in Asia have outlawed sales of ivory amid the global push to curb the killing of elephants in Africa – but China’s move to ban all domestic sales of ivory products from next Monday has been hailed as “the greatest single step to reducing elephant poaching.”

China has the largest market for illegal elephant ivory, WildAid chief executive Peter Knights explained, and the ban has already led to an 80% decline in seizures of ivory entering the country, as well as a 65% decline in raw ivory prices.

“China’s ban is crucial for elephants,” says WildAid CEO Peter Knights. “As the US steps back from international environmental commitments, Chinese leadership is essential.”

Poaching for the trade in ivory is estimated to claim about 30,000 elephants around the world every year. But Knights said things were improving. Poaching in Kenya had dropped from 390 elephants killed in 2013 to only 46 last year, and by 55% in Tanzania in 2016 compared to 2015.

Dr Fred Kwame Kumah, head of WWF’s regional office for Africa, agreed that “China has shown great leadership on this urgent issue”.

“This ban means we start 2018 a step closer to a world where the demand for ivory is extinct, not the elephants. The next few months will be an absolutely critical time for the ban to be enforced and communicated.”

He hoped that neighboring countries such as Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam would follow suit and close their legal markets without further delay as there was “strong evidence that the illegal ivory market is still widespread both online and in unlicensed shops across China”.

Some 172 ivory carving factories and retail outlets will close this week, as part of China’s policy.

Shops in Hong Kong and China have been trying to clear their stock of ivory before the ban comes into effect. Photo: WildAid

Ivory prices in China were reportedly 65% lower this year than levels three years ago and some locations offered discounts of up to 50% off already reduced prices. Discounts were advertised on remaining stock in many cities as outlets tried to clear their products before the ban comes into effect.

The proposed ban appears to have had a major impact. Seizures of illegal ivory shipments in China down by 80% in 2016 from previous years, according to the State Forestry Administration. Last month customs officials in Guangxi seized 165 tusks from a rural home. The 360-kilogram haul has an estimated illicit value of US$4.4 million.

WildAid said the seizure also indicated that Chinese authorities were utilizing more intelligence when fighting the illegal wildlife trade, rather than just making “opportunistic seizures at borders”.

“Prices are down and law enforcement effort in many parts of Africa and Asia are much improved,” Knights said. “The UN has unanimously called for domestic ivory sales bans, leaving Japan as the only major consumer yet unwilling to join the global community.”

In 2012, Chinese basketball star Yao Ming helped WildAid produce its first documentary on ivory poaching to air nationally on China Central Television, the state broadcast network. He also helped launch one of the largest-ever public awareness campaigns over subsequent years, which is credited with helping to greatly increase public knowledge that ivory comes from poached elephants.

In 2014, Yao Ming proposed to the National People’s Congress that ivory sales be banned in China. That same year, China carried out its first-ever destruction of seized ivory. WildAid described the event as a “sea change in attitude” from the government. And with strong collaboration with the Obama Administration, President Xi Jinping announced the national ban on December 30, 2016.

Many Chinese celebrities joined Yao Ming in the “Ivory Free” campaign, including Li Bingbing, Jay Chou, Lang Lang and Jiang Wen. Messages were broadcast on more than 25 TV networks, as well as movie theatres and on thousands of billboards in over 20 Chinese cities.

Global figures such as Prince William, David Beckham, Lupita Nyong’o, Maggie Q, Sir Richard Branson, Edward Norton also participated in the campaign.

Other countries and places taking action to shut down ivory trades in their areas include:

  • The United States, which has already implemented a sales ban.
  • In Hong Kong, lawmakers have reviewed a government plan to ban the ivory trade. A final vote in the Legislative Council is expected in early 2018.
  • Singapore has said it is considering a full domestic ivory ban.
  • Taiwan is cracking down on illegal ivory sellers and will soon announce a ban on domestic ivory sales starting in 2020.
  • Thailand has enacted strong regulations to control the ivory trade over the past two years. Some 42% of all traders (91 in total) agreed to revoke their licenses by mid-2017 after the ivory act was introduced, and it has seen a 58% drop in sales of registered ivory items compared to mid-2016.
  • Vietnam is also strengthening its laws on wildlife products such as ivory, with heavier fines and penalties – jail terms of up to 15 years for 90 kilograms or more of ivory. Officials have seized 12 tons of ivory since October 2016.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that the number of African elephants fell by 111,000 over the past decade. The overall trend in elephant poaching shows a drop from 2011, but the illegal killing of forest elephants in Central Africa remains high, WildAid said.

Between 2008 and 2016, elephant populations declined by 66% in parts of Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Gabon, according to a WWF survey.