The Real Ivory Game

Published in SWARA Magazine – April – June 2018

China’s new domestic ban on the ivory trade presents all the makings of excellent global public relations, but it could do more harm than good without effective enforcement.

At the end of 2017, China declared that it had closed down the domestic trade in ivory. Conservation-establishment players did victory laps declaring the move as a major step in curtailing elephant poaching. The news website featured a blog entitled: “More efforts are needed to stamp out the ivory trade”, essentially declaring China had done its bit and that it was up to the international community to follow suit.

On my trips, I regularly visit border enclaves controlled by Chinese nationals — in places like Laos and Myanmar — and habitually witness a complete lack of control. I see tons of illegal wildlife products for sale. The key clientele are Chinese visitors, who eventually take most items back into China.

Admiring acquired ivory products by Chinese tourist in Hanoi in the departure lounge awaiting a flight to Guangzhou.

After checking into a flight from Hanoi, Vietnam, to Guangzhou, China, we actually filmed a couple in the departure hall — the wife retrieving from her purse a collection of ivory items to admire and try on. We followed her through customs in China. No sign of any control. No sign of any sniffer dogs like those now working at several airports in Africa.

Via WeChat messenger link — the Chinese version of WhatsApp — and free internet access, friends back home in China can be shown bargain items and place additional orders via their phones.

Ever since China announced that it would eventually close its legal domestic ivory trade, many said this would be a gamechanger. At no point have I seen any writer comparing this development with what happened in 1993 when China outlawed the domestic trade in rhino horn to similar accolades. The poaching of rhinos has increased exponentially since. Why would things be different in the business of ivory?


During the run-up to the end-of-December deadline in 2017, local operatives in the border regions spoke of traders arriving with their stocks of raw material and workshop equipment, presumably having been told by Chinese policymakers that they should not count on any compensation when their China-based setups would have to shut their doors. As long as existing stock of supposedly legal items are not destroyed — or bought up and locked away — they will end up in the black market, which has always exceeded what was offered on sale within a legal framework.

At the end of November, we visited one shop in Guangzhou. In the window, indeed, a “for sale” sign indicating a change of tack. They also operated a workshop, the shopkeeper confirmed, and the store items would be moved back to the workshop floor once they closed down. We could not get any answers about what would happen to all the remaining licensed stock, but when we casually checked out the phone number on WeChat, we found that the merchandise was still freely available online.

A typical ivory display set up with ever more mass produced down market products and Chinese buyers in town in Laos

There appears to be no law in China restricting the ownership of illegal wildlife products, as long as a buyer or seller is not caught in the act of a commercial transaction. There seems to be no problem displaying these items as status symbols, which is what drives most of this market. The web-based trade is clearly the big new loophole to domestically promote and market ivory products in China.

There are also “mammoth-ivory outlets” popping up. You can waltz into one at the departure area of the Guangzhou airport after you have passed through customs-and immigration control. These new retail platforms as well as traders in neighboring countries — plus Chinese-controlled enclaves in these countries — very quickly caught on to these fantastic new opportunities of marketing their wares to Chinese tourists, posing zero risk when taking the products back. This, combined with more machine carving of mass-produced ivory trinkets, from bangles to chopsticks. The market is clearly catering for new customer segments through cheaper products.

Ivory tusks are actually massive teeth
that protrude well beyond the mouths of
elephants. Much of the tusk is made up of
dentine, a hard, dense, bony tissue. And the
whole tusk is wrapped in enamel, the hardest
animal tissue and the part of the tusk that
manages the most wear and tear.
Ivory tusks are actually massive teeth that protrude well beyond the mouths of elephants. Much of the tusk is made up of dentine, a hard, dense, bony tissue. And the whole tusk is wrapped in enamel, the hardest animal tissue and the part of the tusk that manages the most wear and tear.

In 2016, a survey in China indicated that the price for raw ivory had dropped by 60 per cent, implying that this was a consequence of the domestic market’s imminent closure. CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon immediately joined the cause, declaring the bottom had dropped out of the ivory market. Our own research revealed that average prices in neighbouring countries had come down from $1,200 to $800 per kilo. The drop in the per-kilo price of rhino horn was even more pronounced, although this could not possibly have had anything to do with an imminent closure of the domestic market, shut down in 1993.


Elephant poaching for the skin has now become a major issue in parts of SE Asia. Pangolin scales, however, are more expensive than elephant skin.

However, the cost of worked items like ivory bangles or necklaces remaineper gram of ivory. In the case of rhino horn, a gram will set you back $100. Lower raw and stable prices for ivory retail products would mean a higher profit margin. This trend seems to have lured more traders, some with retail stores, but many are moving to online marketing. In Laos alone, we sourced a list of 42 Chinese nationals trading via the internet. While in Guangzhou, we also tested this market. Our local operatives from Hong Kong ordered tiger-bone items, which all the same suppliers offered among their hundreds, even thousands, of ivory items, carved pangolin scales, rhino-horn medallions, hornbill and turtle jewelry. The latest items on promotion were elephant skin jewelry. Pieces of elephant skin and even trunks were openly advertised. One trader informed our intermediary that all items offered as mammoth ivory, which is legal, were from elephant.

Prior to shipping and paying via the WeChat Wallet, the supplier sent customer references to assure us that the shipment was not some kind of a scam. The items arrived in a very timely fashion. The package was delivered to the hotel concierge and we picked it up without any problem.

A display in another casino town in Laos tiger skin and ivory necklaces.

I have admired some fantastic art pieces carved out of elephant and mammoth ivory. Looking at big pieces, even a layman can tell the difference. I have also read the tales of a handful of old-fashioned expert carvers now having to work with the mammoth tusks. I am convinced that these top-end products have not driven the market for many years. With increasing affluence in Chinese society, status is what drives the market’s luxury segment. We saw young people trying on bracelets in a shop in Mong Lah, Myanmar, sending home images and offering to bring some of these bargain deals back with them.

On my most recent trip in November, I asked a few Chinese wildlife-trade experts why these new regulations should be considered the end of elephant poaching. One of the answers I got was that things might get worse. At least the legal ivory trade offered some sort of safety valve, which has now lapsed. All indications are that the demand is increasing. These trends seem to be borne out in a TRAFFIC survey, completed to establish a baseline for further evaluating the impact of the new regulations.

A fake ivory display in a shop in China illustrates that the demand is probably a lot higher than the amounts of elephants poached and the ivory arriving at the demand end.

The wildlife trade monitoring network (TRAFFIC) conducted a survey in 15 cities throughout China. Three findings stuck out:

  • “Forty-three percent claimed that they intend to purchase ivory in the future, but the percentage dropped to 18% after hearing of the ban”.
  • “Fifty-one percent of millennials have heard of the ban and, when prompted, 21% intended to buy ivory post ban.
  • “Those who travel overseas have bought significantly more ivory in the past than those who never travel.”

Today China presides over a human population of 1.4 billion people. If even 18 per cent of them are ready to buy more ivory despite the ban, we are potentially looking at 250 million illegal ivory consumers.

When discussing the demand for tiger products with local experts, the issue of “reverse-stigma syndrome” arose. This syndrome occurs when items become illegal and certain segments of society value them more. It adds to your social status to illustrate that you are above the law. I have seen businessmen flaunting large rhino horn on their desks. It does not seem like this phenomenon played any part in the TRAFFIC survey.

That China has a better control for internet access than any other nation is well known. There are accounts that up to two-million people in China are paid salaries to control their web gateways. If there was real interest in controlling the illegal trade, it could be done much more effectively.

In 2004, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) completed a web survey of illegal wildlife products offered online, stating that they had found 1,390 ivory items on major Chinese web-trading platforms. Now, there are websites with similar numbers offered by one dealer alone. Dozens of them are operating.

The time has come to stop celebrating and establish what is really happening on the ground, at sales over the counter and through cyberspace. That, in turn, requires investigative work by local Operatives.


On average one African elephant is killed by poachers every 25 minutes!

It is estimated that around 20,000 African elephants are killed by poachers for their ivory every year. This equates to an average of around 55 elephants being killed every day, that’s one every 25 minutes. The latest independent data and analysis suggests that poaching is slightly down from the peak recorded in 2011, but remains at unacceptably high and unsustainable levels.

20% of Africa’s elephant population lost in just ten years The overall African elephant population plummeted by over 20 per cent in the past decade, falling to an estimated 415,000, mainly due to a dramatic surge in ivory poaching. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), around 111,000 elephants were lost between 2006 and 2015 with the largest declines in Central Africa, Tanzania and Mozambique, and with the majority being illegally killed for their tusks to meet rising demand for ivory in Asia.

Demand for ivory is greatest in Asia

Ivory is mainly sought after for carvings, jewellery and ornaments. Demand is highest in markets in Asia, especially China where ivory is seen as a status symbol. Whilst Thailand has taken significant steps to transform its domestic ivory market in 2015, the legal trade there still allows illegal ivory to be laundered. Vietnam and Hong Kong have also been identified as having significant legal and illegal markets for ivory.

FIND OUT MORE – See also Nigel Hunter’s review of a report for Save the Elephants by Lucy Vigne and Esmond Martin entitled “The Ivory Trade of Laos: Now the Fastest Growing in the World” in the January-March 2018 issue of Swara.

Karl Ammann – April 8, 2018

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: