China to Destroy Illegal Ivory: A Breakthrough in the War on Elephants?

The modern ivory trade is dominated by China, which accounts for an estimated 70 percent of the market.
(Photo: Tony Karumba / Getty Images)
Jan 4, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

In a remarkable turnabout, Chinese authorities have announced that they will destroy six tons of confiscated elephant ivory on Monday. “The burning ceremony of illegal ivory and other wildlife products” will take place at 11 a.m. local time (10 p.m. Sunday U.S. Eastern time) in Guangzhou, where the rampant ivory trade has until now gone almost entirely unregulated.

In a cordially-worded invitation sent out Friday to foreign diplomats and non-governmental organizations, China’s State Forest Administration described the event as being “for the purpose of raising public awareness, and demonstrating the Chinese government’s resolve to combat illegal wildlife trafficking.”

The move comes as the trade in ivory is rapidly pushing Africa’s elephants to extinction in the wild, with 35,000 elephants being killed every year for their tusks. Some estimates put the remaining population in the wild as low as 400,000. The modern ivory trade is dominated by China, which accounts for an estimated 70 percent of the market, followed by Thailand and Vietnam. “China is the epicenter of demand,” a senior State Department official recently told the publication China-US Focus. “Without the demand from China, this would all but dry up.”

For China’s rising middle class, ivory chopsticks, bookmarks, rings, combs, and other trinkets have enormous value as status symbols and gifts. This taste for ivory carvings extends to officials at the highest levels of the central government. But that may now be changing.

According to a U.S. wildlife expert close to the planning of Monday’s event, the State Forest Administrationhas been a reluctant participant in the destruction of ivory. But it is acting “under full pressure” from officials in the central government. As international attention to the slaughter of elephants has increased, said the source, who asked not to be named, “Groups within the Chinese government have said, ‘This is an embarrassment for China. We have to do something’.”

Monday’s largely symbolic destruction of ivory could thus represent a seismic shift in attitudes. It will be one of the few times China’s government has taken action in response to concerns, at home and abroad, about wildlife. The recent decision to ban shark fin soup at state banquets, for instance, “had absolutely nothing to do with wildlife,” said the source. “It was all about corruption and profligacy, and the idea that government officials shouldn’t be seen eating luxurious foods.”

While ivory is also a luxury item, the choice of Guangzhou as the site of Monday’s event is one indicator that the motive this time is different. Not only is Guandong Province the center of China’s ivory trade, but it’s the home of Southern Weekly, an influential national newspaper with a reputation for investigative reporting.

In November, the paper published a story on the bloody effects of the ivory trade in Africa. Until then, many people in China had believed that xiang ya, literally “elephant’s teeth,” fell out and then grew back, with the tusks merely being picked up by collectors from the ground.

Southern Weekly’s story, “The Blood Ivory: Behind the Largest Ivory Smuggling Cases in China,” put the truth about China’s role in the slaughter of elephants on the front page. It went viral on social media, reaching more than 10 million readers. It also quickly landed on the desks of national decision-makers. The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society commented at the time, “This represents an important shift for the topic of ivory from the specialist environmental pages to the mainstream debate.”

The choice to destroy six tons of ivory looks like a direct response to the U.S. government’s destruction of the same amount of ivory in November. It represents only a fraction of China’s stockpile of confiscated ivory (which some estimates put at 60 tons), whereas the U.S. was destroying its entire stockpile. “But I think this is a test. I think they want to see the reaction,” the same source argued. “If the world says, ‘It’s only six tons, it’s all show, and no real action, no real control,’ then there’s a danger that China will go back in the box. But if the central government sees that by taking this action, they not only save face, but gain face, then they’ll take the next steps.”

That could mean destroying the rest of its stockpile of illegal ivory, declaring a moratorium on any future purchase of legal ivory from Africa, and shutting down the importation and sale of illegal ivory (now often disguised as legal).

“That would have a huge impact. I don’t think China will do all three. But even if it’s just two, it would be a fantastic move forward.”