With Ivory Ban at Home, More Chinese Are Buying Abroad

Sep 29, 2019 | News

By Sixth Tone

While overall consumption of ivory has dropped significantly in the country after a 2017 ban, more Chinese are purchasing ivory products abroad, according to a new report. 

China, once the world’s largest consumer of ivory, has seen two years of diminishing domestic demand since a nationwide ban was imposed in 2017 — but outbound travelers are showing more interest in buying the prohibited products, according to a survey released Wednesday by the World Wide Fund for Nature, an environmental nonprofit.

The survey, which polled 2,000 people in 15 Chinese cities, concluded that the ivory ban has played a major role in deterring domestic consumption, in line with findings from the WWF’s first post-ban survey in 2018. Nearly 80% of respondents to this year’s survey said that, because of the ban, they would not consider buying ivory.

Less encouraging, however, is the growing number of Chinese who are buying elephant tusks abroad. Of the respondents who said they travel abroad at least twice a year, 27% admitted to purchasing ivory products, up from 18% in the WWF’s 2018 survey.

Notably, many of those who purchased ivory products while abroad said they hadn’t necessarily planned to do so until their tour guide suggested it — though the survey also identified a group of mostly educated, well-off men as “die-hard buyers” whose appetites for ivory had not abated because of the ban.

Due to decades of rampant poaching, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora currently ranks African and Asian elephants in the most-endangered category. With this designation, the commercial trade of elephant-derived products is, at least nominally, banned internationally.

“Chinese consumers were a driving demographic behind the global ivory trade that led to an elephant poaching crisis across the African continent beginning around 2010,” Karen Xue, head of the WWF’s global ivory initiative, said in a press release for the survey. She added that China’s ban is a critically important measure in the global fight against wildlife crime.

For centuries, ivory and other products derived from wild animals have been used in traditional medicines and flaunted as symbols of wealth in China and other parts of Asia, and high demand for such goods has been met in part through poaching. With China’s ban, wildlife trafficking has proliferated in neighboring countries, where opportunists see easy money and relatively few risks due to weak supervision.

During a 2017 investigation in Laos, which borders China’s southwestern Yunnan province, Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper, found that the country’s open ivory market has become a hotbed for Chinese tourists hoping to skirt the ivory ban back home. Despite being a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, Laos has become a major hub in the international ivory trade due to poor local law enforcement.

According to Wednesday’s survey, the three most popular ivory-buying destinations for mainland Chinese tourists are Thailand, Hong Kong, and Cambodia — all of which are home to numerous shops that still sell the banned products, despite bans or promises of bans.

In recent years, Chinese customs has ramped up efforts to eliminate ivory trafficking, carrying out raids on illegal businesses. However, the very existence of legal or semilegal ivory markets in neighboring countries diminishes the efficacy of China’s ivory ban, according to environmental experts.


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