2020: The start of a new decade and the estimated year of judgement for one of our planet’s most intelligent and magnificent animals. Scientists and conservationists have estimated that by 2020, African elephants will be extinct if poaching continues at its current insatiable rate. In the 1980s, the African elephant population was estimated to be around 1 million, but now calculations place it at less than a dismal 470,000. The loss of African elephants as a species would be heart-breaking on a moral level, but it would not just be our human consciences that would suffer; Elephants play a very important role in both the ecological and tourist economy of Africa. Many communities and African peoples depend on thriving elephant populations as a means to generate cash flow through the wildlife tourism industry. If the trend continues, the landscapes of national parks and reserves could become void of elephants, an immensely troubling and saddening prospect, and no elephants means quite simply no tourists. Elephants are essential for the environment: the vital role elephants play in maintaining a healthy balance in African ecosystems has been underplayed. Due to their large sizes and foliage clearing ways, they keep habitats open, meaning other species such as antelope and deer can graze freely. Furthermore, by creating gaps in the vegetation they encourage the growth of new plants and play an important role in seed dispersal as they brush past vegetation. Even their dung is a precious entity, as the seeds deposited inside take root and help to create new grasses and trees, replenishing and revitalising the entire savannah ecosystem. It can be said that elephants are real eco-warriors!
Rewind to the start of 2018, and there have been major developments that could potentially signal new hope for the survival of the elephant. China made history and the international headlines when it announced that as of 2018, all trade in ivory products in the country would be made illegal by law. Since China’s explosive growth and emergence as a major world power and economic force, ivory has become a sought-after commodity, serving as a potent symbol of success and used in gift-giving practices, among the rich and wealthy. Shops and factories popped up all over China, specialising in ivory carving and gifts. China’s lust for ivory accounts for up to 70% of the global market. It is hoped that this historic ban will be instrumental in curbing China’s appetite for elephant tusks, however, it is yet to be seen how much of China’s huge black-market trade for ivory will remain after the legal ban. In the past this has been a major obstacle, as in 2008, China allowed the stockpiling of 62 tonnes of ivory from Africa with the intention that it would enable authorities to control supply and lessen demand for illegal ivory by helping to keep prices low. This proved to be a huge mistake as it turned out to have the opposite effect, by conveying the message that ivory was okay to buy and this led to the market becoming even more flooded as demand piqued.
Another concern is what will happen to the stockpiles of ivory already in China? The Chinese government have remained quiet as to how they will prevent these huge reserves of ivory from potentially leaking onto the black market. There was, however, a very encouraging development on the 31st January as Hong Kong’s lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to follow China’s lead and also ban the trade in ivory. Immediately after the China ban, concerns were expressed over Hong Kong’s lack of a ban, especially as the autonomous territory is a known major ivory trading hub. Due to its location in the river estuary, many mainland Chinese customers use it as a market to access ivory. Despite being a move in the right direction, the phasing out of the ivory trade in Hong Kong is set to be more gradual than many conservationists would like, as the plan is that by 2021 all traders will be obliged to have disposed of their stock, but there are suggestions that this will be too little, too late.
The problem seems to be that as old markets close, new ones open up to fill the gap. According to an investigation by the Kenya-based group Save the Elephants, the fastest growing ivory market in the world is now Laos. The price of ivory in Laos is much cheaper than on the Chinese mainland and due to weak law enforcement, the illegal cross-border trade is going virtually unpoliced. Thus, we could increasingly see Chinese buyers looking to neighbouring countries to satisfy their ivory demands. It would seem that the only way to decisively halt the trade in ivory would be a global blanket ban especially in peripheral countries bordering large markets such as China.
The Chinese domestic ban on ivory trade is an encouraging step and should be celebrated it must be appreciated that a holistic approach to the problem is needed and this must be acted upon promptly if we are to stand any chance of making long-term, sustainable progress in saving this magnificent species.