China Takes First Step Towards Closing Domestic Ivory Market

05/04/2017 15:38 BST | Updated 05/04/2017 15:38 BST

On 31st March the last of China's legal ivory factories were closed.

China is widely seen as the biggest marketplace for ivory, and the major driver of global demand which is fuelling the poaching crisis facing elephants across Africa. The closure of its factories represents a vital first step in a process which will culminate in licensed retail outlets being shuttered across the country by the end of the year.

According to a recent report by Save the Elephants, the price of raw ivory in China has already fallen by about two thirds over the past three years from around $2,100 per kg to around $730. It is hoped the clear message from the Chinese authorities that commercial trade in ivory will no longer be acceptable will discourage potential buyers, and help make ivory poaching and trafficking unprofitable and untenable.

Elephant populations across Africa have plummeted from maybe 10m a century ago, to not much more than 400,000 today. As many as 30,000 elephants are being slaughtered for their ivory each year by poachers, and populations continue to fall by around 8% each year. If this decline continues, elephants could disappear altogether from much of the African continent over the coming years.

Of course it's not just a numbers game. Elephants are highly intelligent, social and emotional animals, and the anguish and suffering being inflicted on individual elephants and their families is unimaginable.

Elephant poaching also damages local ecotourism industries, and the involvement of criminal syndicates in the trade breeds social, political and economic instability in some of the most vulnerable parts of Africa.

International commercial trade in 'new' ivory was banned under CITES in 1989. But that doesn't mean there is no legal trade. Many countries continue to allow ivory to be traded domestically, and there is a big international trade in so-called 'pre-convention ivory' (ivory obtained before the CITES ban came into force). CITES has also permitted 'one-off' commercial sales of large government ivory stockpiles from southern Africa to China and Japan, legitimising the product in the eyes of consumers, and fuelling demand.

Any legal trade in ivory stimulates interest and demand, and provides a mechanism by which illegal ivory can be laundered into trade

Only by banning all commercial trade and sending a strong and clear message to consumers that the trade in ivory from any source is unacceptable, can we hope to stem the elephant poaching crisis.

So while the news from China is very welcome, China isn't the only marketplace for ivory. We need other countries to follow the lead being set by China and the United States (which introduced a 'near total ban' last year). Hong Kong has announced its intention to close its ivory markets within five years, and the new new Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Legislative Council needs to accelerate that process and bring it into line with Mainland China's commitment to close its domestic market by the end of this year.

The UK and European Union are lagging behind, and remain major sources of worked ivory in international trade. The UK alone declared exports of around 25,000 ivory items over the past decade, many of which were destined for the Far East.

In its last two election manifestos the Conservative Party committed to shutting down the domestic ivory market, and we know that current and former foreign secretaries and a former environment secretary have been urging the Government to make good on this commitment, but so far it has failed to act.

Next year Britain will host the fourth in a series of high-level international meetings on tackling wildlife trafficking. If our government wants to remain at the forefront of these efforts, it needs to make good on its manifesto commitments and on the Resolutions to which it signed up to at the World Conservation Congress and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species last year, by introducing a comprehensive ban on the commercial trade in ivory into, out of and within our shores, and persuade our European Union partners to do the same.

Of course there will be those who will be affected by a ban who don't contribute in any way to elephant poaching, such as musicians who use antique instruments made partly of ivory, or museums that display items of significant historical importance that contain some ivory, and their concerns will need to be addressed.

But the lives and the very future of elephants are and must always be far more important and valuable that trinkets and carvings made from their teeth.