NAIROBI, Kenya — In the past 10 years, tens of thousands of elephants have been slaughtered across Africa to feed China’s insatiable appetite for ivory. Entire herds from Gabon to Tanzania have disappeared. Even baby elephants have been killed for their tiny stubs of ivory. Scientists have said that the very survival of the species is in China’s hands.
On Friday, after years of denying that China was part of the problem, the Chinese government made a stunning announcement: It would shut down the country’s ivory market, the world’s largest.
Will this save the elephants? This is what experts on the plight of elephants say:
• It all depends on the price. If China simply shuts down its legal ivory trade but does little to combat the much bigger illegal trade, then the price of ivory (now about $500 a pound) will stay high, giving poachers an incentive to keep killing.
• Making all ivory illegal in China could actually push the price up, like illegal drugs.
• Neighboring markets will be crucial. If Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines and others do not take similar steps, then many Chinese will simply buy their ivory from other places, which will keep demand high.
• African elephants face other threats, including habitat destruction and increasingly deadly contact with humans. In Kenya, a truck speeding down a highway recently rammed into an elephant and killed it.
• Many elephants are also hunted for bush meat. China’s new policy will not affect that.
• If the Chinese government really commits to combating the ivory trade, then the price of ivory could collapse. Criminal organizations and poachers will then abandon the business, and Africa’s elephant herds could recover for the first time in years.
The Early Ivory Trade
Ivory comes from an elephant’s tusks, the equivalent of its incisor teeth. Ivory has been coveted for thousands of years because it is strong, beautiful and relatively easy to carve.
In the 19th century, European nations used ivory for billiard balls, piano keys, buttons, snuffboxes and false teeth. Countless elephants in central Africa were shot down. Joseph Conrad thinly fictionalized the ruthless scramble for ivory in “Heart of Darkness.”
Scientists believe that before the 19th-century ivory craze, more than 10 million elephants roamed the earth. Today, there are about 500,000.
The New Scramble for Ivory
Around 2002, conservationists across Africa started noticing the same thing: a growing proportion of dead elephants with their faces sawed off and tusks missing. At the same time, China’s economy was beginning to boom. In China, ivory is a status symbol, carved into bracelets, bookmarks, shot glasses, statuettes, chopsticks, combs and many other objects. As China’s middle class grew to the hundreds of millions, a new scramble for ivory intensified.
The ivory trade has been abetted by pervasive corruption, extreme poverty and the presence of armed groups in many areas of Africa where the last great elephant herds roam.
Elephants are killed many ways. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, they have been shot by poachers from helicopters. In Kenya, bows and arrows are often used, a quieter method that attracts less attention. In Malawi, poisoned pumpkins are rolled into the road for the elephants to eat. The poachers include subsistence hunters, rebel groups and even American-allied African militaries.
And the threat is not just to elephants. In recent years, African governments have reported that poachers have killed scores of wildlife rangers.
Criminal gangs buy the ivory from poachers and ship it to Asia, bribing government officials along the way. The ivory is sometimes packed with anchovies or chili peppers, to throw off the sniffer dogs used by customs agents and law enforcement officials.
Pushing for Change in China
Wildlife researchers estimate that 50 percent to 70 percent of all smuggled elephant ivory — maybe even more — ends up in China, where there are countless ivory workshops and showrooms, many perfectly legal.
In China right now, large pieces of legal ivory come with documents certifying that the ivory was acquired before the 1989 worldwide ban on the commercial ivory trade or that it came from one of the authorized sales since then, when a few African countries were allowed to sell from their stockpiles.
But many wildlife experts say this system is a farce. The ivory papers can be easily forged, and the ivory in public shops is often smuggled ivory from recently killed elephants that has been illegally imported and fraudulently labeled.
Iain Douglas-Hamilton, one of the world’s most renowned elephant researchers, said that up until a few years ago, Chinese officials denied that their country was a part of the ivory problem.
“It was a topic you couldn’t bring up with them,” Mr. Douglas-Hamilton said.
But over the years, he said, China has grown embarrassed by the criticism it has received around the world for its appetite for ivory. Wildlife groups, the American government, African governments and international movie stars have harangued China to say no to ivory.
“China has come through an extraordinary evolution,” Mr. Douglas-Hamilton said.
The Risk of Unintended Effects
China says it will shut down its ivory trade by the end of 2017. It says it will start by closing the legal ivory processing factories.
But will this simply drive the trade underground? For instance, it is forbidden in China to traffic in tiger parts.
But there is still a thriving underground trade in tiger bones, used to make very expensive wines cherished for their supposed medicinal powers.
Some consumers seem to get an additional thrill from knowing tiger-bone wine is highly illegal.
Karl Ammann, a documentary filmmaker and independent wildlife investigator in Kenya, said he was worried that something like this could happen to ivory.
Ivory’s value as a status symbol could actually increase, he said, if ivory is seen as a statement of being above the law.
“If it’s illegal, that might make it even more attractive,” he said.
Mr. Ammann also said that many ivory-carving factories had already moved to Vietnam. On a recent trip to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, he said, he visited an ivory workshop that used a computerized machine that carved five ivory pieces at once.
The Response From Africa
The reaction among many wildlife experts in Africa can be summed up in one word: cautious.
“Assuming they are able to break the market, for us it does offer a bit of light at the end of a very dark tunnel,” said Emmanuel de Merode, the director of Virunga National Park in Congo.
But he quickly added: “Ivory can be stockpiled. Some people may think it’s worth trying to get more ivory in case the market opens one day.”
That could mean an increase in poaching before China’s ban takes effect.
Paula Kahumbu, the chief executive of WildlifeDirect, a conservation group in Kenya, said she was “suspicious” about China’s motives and its commitment to fight the ivory trade.
“China needs Africa right now,” she said. “I think they’re just buying good will.”
Ms. Kahumbu cited several Chinese infrastructure projects that had caused problems for Kenya’s wildlife.
When it comes to Africa, she said, China does not have “an environmental bone” in its body.