Elephant in the Maasai Mara of Kenya, East Africa.

Working Group:
Chinese Ivory Trade

Elephants are in crisis. Every year, approximately 35,000 are killed, largely to supply the illegal international trade in ivory and meet demand in Asia – primarily China. Reducing demand for ivory is seen as a vital step towards eliminating the illegal killing of elephants. How to do so is the subject of much disagreement because people do not know enough about the economic drivers and impacts of the legal and illegal ivory trades in China to make informed decisions.

Photo: © Robyn Gianni | More Info
Photo: © Ami Vitale for The Nature Conservancy

Working Group Summary

Understanding the Ivory Trade

So little is currently known about the economic structure of the Chinese ivory trade policymakers cannot accurately evaluate the costs and benefits to China of regulating a legal ivory trade, which also entails combating the parallel illegal trade, as compared to the economic costs, benefits and market effects of a permanent ivory trade ban. The Economics of the Chinese Ivory Trade Working Group will conduct the first comprehensive analysis of China’s ivory trade to enable the government to make decisions on ivory trade policy based on an evidence-based and comprehensive analysis of the economic, social, and environmental impacts of the trade.

Learn about the Challenge

Photo: © Ami Vitale for The Nature Conservancy

The Challenge

Reducing Chinese Market Demand for Ivory

A key issue at the nexus of wildlife conservation and human livelihoods is whether a legal trade in ivory is – or could become – beneficial to elephant conservation, natural resource management, and local and national economies, especially those in pro-trade elephant range States, without harming elephant populations in and economies of other range States.

On one side, proponents of bans on all Chinese domestic ivory sales argue that the legal trade provides cover for large amounts of illegal ivory to enter the market, undermines law enforcement efforts at all points in the trade chain, and drives demand.  On the other, proponents of a legal ivory trade argue that bans restrict supply and thus drive up prices, providing incentives to poachers and traffickers, while simultaneously undermining local peoples’ willingness to share the land with elephants.

A main reason the debate continues with so little resolution is that not enough is understood about the economic drivers and impacts of the legal and illegal ivory trade in China. In particular, there is currently no comprehensive assessment of the economic costs and benefits to China of regulating a legal trade, which entails combating the parallel illegal trade facilitated by this legal trade, as opposed to the economic costs and benefits of an outright ivory trade ban (or indeed of a moratorium [i.e. a temporary ban] for a number of years).

Also lacking is an understanding of the overall cost-benefit ratio of the ivory trade for local livelihoods, ecosystems, and other issues of human security, especially in key African elephant range States where poaching occurs. This lack of understanding extends to the effects of China’s policies on the ivory trade on wider China–Africa relations.

Read about this Inquiry

Elephants in Minneriya National Park in Sri Lanka.

The Inquiry

Assessing the True Impacts and Drivers of the Ivory Trade

The Economics of the Chinese Ivory Trade Working Group will bring together a consortium of influential experts to assess the true economic impacts of the ivory trade in China, and its impacts on human livelihoods in China and Africa, and provide policy recommendations to the Chinese government.

To address these questions, the Working Group will focus on understanding the economics of different ivory trade policy options, how Chinese policies could be modified to ensure the recovery and stability of African elephant populations, improve security environments around critical elephant habitat with positive implications for local livelihoods, and support favorable China–Africa relations.

The Working Group will analyze the economics of the ivory trade system in China, its drivers, related policies and dynamics, including:

  • Is the ivory market in China a demand- or supply-side driven market?
  • What are the implications for the economics of regulation if the ivory market is a demand- or supply-side driven market?
  • What are the current elements of the legal trade that facilitate the illegal trade in ivory? What loopholes could be closed and what are the wider economic implications of this?
  • One assumption to be tested is: should all domestic trade in ivory be banned, the value of ivory would collapse, resulting in significantly reduced levels of illegal killing of elephants across much of Africa.

Understanding the response of Chinese consumers to a permanent ban on the domestic ivory trade, or a change in the ease of access to illegal ivory is key to making policy recommendations on the continued existence of a legal ivory trade.

The Working Group will also assess the development impact of Chinese ivory trade policies in China and African elephant range States, including:

  • What are the economic and livelihood implications if China decides to ban the ivory trade and potential revenue streams for pro-trade range States? Impacts could include loss in value for stockpiled ivory, livelihood implications for communities involved in community-based natural resource management systems, as well as enterprises involved in other parts of the legal trade chain.

The Wildlife Conservation Society will field-test the effects of policy changes on elephant populations in Africa and the demand for ivory in China through our extensive elephant monitoring program in Africa and our China ivory demand reduction program.

The timing of the Working Group’s project will allow the findings to inform China’s 2016 National Congress Conference, which is a particularly important opportunity because it will guide Chinese policies at the next Conference of the Parties to CITES (CoP17) in October 2016. COP 17 is a vital arena for international policy development, and so using this window of opportunity will enable this SNAPP-supported work to have real impact on the issue of the illegal ivory trade globally.

Meet the Team

Photo: © Namal Kamalgoda | More Info

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The Team

The Chinese Ivory Trade Team