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When the price of ivory goes down in China, hopes rise for elephants

China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-04-05 10:27

The price of ivory in China has dropped sharply - from $2,100 per kilo in 2014 to $730 in February - and that's good news for elephants.

Wildlife conservation groups worldwide have been applauding China's plans to end the legal trade in ivory later this year (instead of the end of 2021 as has originally been planned). Now a new survey of ivory prices in markets across China by Save the Elephants, a leading elephant conservation group, suggests those plans may already be having a positive impact.

Chinese demand for tusks has been blamed for driving African elephants toward extinction and the Chinese government in recent years has taken steps to stop the trade in ivory, which is used for ornaments and souvenirs. China's ivory factories were to have been shut down by last Friday, followed by the closing of retail outlets by the end of this year.

Harry Peachey, an adviser to the International Elephant Foundation, calls the drop in prices since 2014 "a harbinger of what will happen once the market is shut down completely."

Conservationists say tens of thousands of elephants have been killed in Africa in recent years as demand for ivory in Asia, particularly China, increased. Past estimates of Africa's elephant population have ranged from 420,000 to 650,000. Some conservationists estimate that up to 20,000 elephants have been killed by poachers every year to meet demand.

"This is a critical period for elephants," said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, president and founder of Save the Elephants, which carried out the new survey.

"With the end of the legal ivory trade in China, the survival chances for elephants have distinctly improved. We must give credit to China for having done the right thing by closing the ivory trade. There is still a long way to go to end the excessive killing of elephants for ivory, but there is now greater hope for the species," he said.

Other factors behind the drop in the price of ivory include a slowing economy with fewer people able to afford luxury goods, and a crackdown on corruption that has dissuaded business people from buying expensive ivory items as "favors" for government officials, the report says.

Peachey said advocacy has also helped. "Consumer education has been part of the process as China moves to shut down the trade," he told China Daily, "and those efforts might very well have played a part in both demand reduction and drop in price - let's hope so."

According to the new survey, the 130 licensed ivory outlets in China have been gradually reducing the quantity of ivory items on display for sale, and recently have been cutting prices to boost sales, the Associated Press reports.

"China has demonstrated that it is all about action and not words - in stark contrast to the United Kingdom Government, which has proclaimed itself a leader on elephant protection issues and has promised to end all domestic ivory trade in the past two election Manifestos," Will Travers, president of the Born Free Foundation told China Daily.

Travers said that the drop in price has been predictable in light of trade restrictions, political pressure, more effective field conservation, improved intelligence gathering and tougher sentencing for wildlife criminals.

"The key variable that will determine the effect on poaching is not prices. It is profits," Prof Alejandro Nadal, economist at El Colegio de Mexico, told China Daily. Without knowing how the markets are structured, he said, "We don't know how the profitability of illegal traders is being affected by these price declines."

Wildlife authorities in Kenya, the main conduit of ivory smuggling in the region, welcomed the news of a price reduction in China.

"Once they don't have an appetite for ivory it will no longer be attractive to kill elephants. We are hopeful that China will meet this deadline (to ban the ivory trade) and we will see our elephant populations restored in the parks," said Patrick Omondi, the deputy director in charge of species at the Kenya Wildlife Service.

Travers reminds us that we're not out of the woods yet, as "tens of thousands of African elephants are still losing their lives each year. Only unified action across the entire internal community can bring the trade and slaughter to an end."

Contact the writer at chrisdavis@chinadailyusa.com.

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