By Xiaohua Sun, Ivory Project Director, The Nature Conservancy
Editor’s Note: Xiaohua was invited to attend an event in Dongguan, China, in which the government crushed six tons of confiscated ivory. Here she answers questions about the legitimacy of ivory products in China, the largest ivory market in the world.
January 6th, 2014 was a clear and warm winter afternoon in the Guangdong Province in South China. The Dongguan area is a well-known international port and manufacturing hub. But it is now known as the site of the Chinese government’s first public, large-scale crush of confiscated ivory.
More than six tons of illegal ivory were laid on a platform draped in blue velvet – displayed like precious jade. The pile was a mix of mud-colored whole tusks and delicately crafted ivory ornaments and behind it sat two crushing machines waiting to be powered on.
At four o’clock in the afternoon, raw tusks and ornaments were pulverized into small pieces then packaged and sealed so that they cannot be crafted or sold. China’s State Forestry Administration and its General Administration of Customs organized the event to send a strong and clear message home and abroad: China bears zero tolerance for the illegal ivory trade.
There are many different kinds of ivory products on the Chinese market. How can we tell the legal pieces from illegal ones?
The guidelines can be traced to a decision made by of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Rampant poaching meant African elephant populations were shrinking rapidly in the late 1980s. In response, CITES passed a temporary ban – still in place today – on all international ivory sales in 1989. However, ivory that arrived in any country prior to the 1989 ban can be bought and sold legally within that same country. Today, legal ivory is legitimately bought and sold in Asia, Europe, the US and the rest of the world.
In 1990, China inventoried its ivory stockpiles and publicly reported possessing a total of 80 tons of ivory. Fourteen years later, the ivory crafting industry began lobbying the government to re-open trade, stating the 80-ton stockpile had been used up.
China submitted an application to CITES and obtained a permit in 2009 for a one-time purchase of 62 tons of ivory from stockpiles in African countries with healthy elephant populations and strong anti-poaching programs. This 62-ton one-off sale is China’s only source of legally imported ivory since the 1989 ban and, per an agreement signed by China and CITES, is the only new – and legal – ivory that will arrive in China until at least 2017.
As required by CITES, China’s State Forestry Administration (SFA) designed and put into effect an ivory product registration system in 2004 whereby each carving factory and retail outlet has to apply for a license to process or trade ivory. Currently, China has 37 ivory factories and 145 retail outlets that are licensed and hold a Certificate of Registration.
How does this new management system help the consumer determine the legality of an ivory purchase?
If the raw material for the product originates from an African elephant (mammoth tusk, for example, is legal), it must meet two standards for legality, regardless of whether it is new or antique: 1.) the ivory must be purchased from a licensed retail outlet, and 2.) the ivory must hold a SFA and State Administration of Industry and Commerce (SAIC) collection permit.
Additionally, ivory products purchased during a trip outside of China must have an official import certificate to guard against bringing an illegal product into the country.
All other ivory products purchased outside of the aforementioned criteria, are deemed blood ivory, meaning they were obtained illegally; taken from the tens of thousands of poached African elephants dying premature and brutal deaths each year.
It is very difficult to distinguish between legal and illegal ivory products: Did it arrive pre- or post-ban? Is the material African elephant or mammoth tusk? Is the factory or retailer properly licensed? Are the certificates real or counterfeit?
Therefore, the best way to avoid purchasing illegal ivory is simply not to purchase any at all.
Avoiding ivory is not difficult. Ivory is not a necessity. It does not have any medicinal value. It is simply an ornament. When one truly understands the bloodshed involved in culling ivory, its use as a tabletop decoration cannot be taken light-heartedly.
African Elephants and Illegal Ivory
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there are only 500,0001 elephants left in Africa. In the 1980s, there were 1.2 million African elephants. Over the course of thirty years, the African elephant population has decreased by more than half.
Data from a CITES-affiliated program called Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) determined that 17,0002 and 22,0003 elephants were poached in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Additionally, in those same years, the elephant death rate reached new highs and now exceeds the population’s natural growth rate.
 The IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group estimates the African Elephant population is around 500,000
Opinions expressed on Conservancy Talk and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conservancy.
Donate to The Nature Conservancy and give back to nature.