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Conservationists hope that the shutdown of China’s legal ivory market by the end of 2017 will make it easier to crackdown on the illegal trade, both of which coexist in China.

Photograph by VCG/VCG, Getty Images

World's Biggest Ivory Market Shutting Down—What It Means

Today China closes the first of its state-licensed ivory carving factories and retailers, a move conservationists hail as a big step toward saving elephants from extinction.

Today one of the world’s largest domestic markets for elephant ivory begins to wind down. China is closing 67 of its licensed ivory facilities, including 12 of its 35 ivory carving factories and several dozen of its more than 130 ivory retailers, according to a notice from the country’s State Forestry Administration, which oversees wildlife trade issues. The rest will be closed before the end of the year.

The Chinese market is believed to be one of the major drivers of elephant poaching in Africa, which has suffered a massive decline in elephant numbers in recent years. Some 30,000 elephants are killed by poachers each year, a rate that will extinguish Africa’s elephants within just a few generations if nothing changes.

"These closures prove that China means business in closing down the ivory trade and helping the African elephant," said Peter Knights, CEO of the nonprofit WildAid, which first reported the closures, in a press release.

The international trade in ivory has been banned since 1990, but many countries, including the China and United States, have continued to allow domestic sales of ivory.

Battle for Elephants: China's Ivory Market

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In 2015 Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama made the historic announcement that the two countries had agreed to “nearly complete” bans on their domestic ivory markets. In China demand for ivory is primarily driven by the desire for status symbols among the growing middle and upper classes. Ivory carvings, chopsticks, and jewelry are seen as a way to show off wealth. In the U.S. the ivory trade has for many years been allowed for ivory brought into the country legally before 1990, ivory taken from elephants killed before 1976, and for a range of antiques and trophies from legal sport hunting.

In June 2016 the U.S. passed new regulations banning the buying and selling of almost all ivory, with exceptions for century-old antiques and a few other categories. This move essentially fulfilled the U.S.'s pledge. And at the end of 2016, China announced that its near-total ban would be in effect within the next 12 months, although it didn’t provide specifics.

Today’s move to close down carving factories is the first concrete step in fulfilling China’s side of the deal.

"China's steps to move from stated intentions to end the commercial sale of ivory to concrete actions mark an exciting new chapter in the fight to preserve elephants in the wild," says Catherine Novelli, Under Secretary of State under Obama, who was instrumental in bringing about China's commitment to shut down its domestic ivory market.

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Some 30 percent of Africa’s savanna elephants have died, mainly at the hands of poachers, between 2007 and 2014.

Until quite recently, the Chinese government had promoted its ivory trade. It licensed new carving factories and retailers and declared ivory carving to be part of its natural heritage. It now has several dozen tons of ivory stockpiled, primarily from a sale in 2008 authorized by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which regulates wildlife trade.

China has released a set amount of raw ivory to its factories each year for carving and sales. This slow drip of ivory into the domestic market caused its value to skyrocket, but a new study released this week by the Nairobi-based nonprofit Save the Elephants finds that during the past three years, the price of ivory has dropped by nearly two-thirds.

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Ivory Crushes and Burns
Taking more than 200 tons of ivory out of global markets
Global Action
Targeting ivory trafficking with new policies and resolutions
U.S. Action
Fighting trafficking with legislative measures

Save the Elephants researchers Lucy Vigne and Esmond Martin attribute the price drop to several factors: an economic slowdown, a crackdown on corruption (ivory items are often used to curry favors with officials), public awareness campaigns about poaching, and the government's commitment to close the trade.

"The ban has had an effect in the [price drop] as legal traders want to sell off their ivory before it is illegal," Vigne wrote in an email.

The government has not said what it plans to do with its ivory stockpile once the ban is fully implemented. (Read more: With Ivory Ban Imminent, What Will Happen to China’s Legal Stockpile?)

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This state-owned ivory carving factory, one of the China’s biggest, employed more than 20 carvers at its peak. It is one of several dozen that will shut down this year.

Some Chinese artists worry that the tradition will be lost. Zhang Minhui, a respected leader in the ivory carving community, told the Guardian earlier this year that his carving factory has been preparing for the shutdown for a while, gradually transitioning to ox bones and mammoth tusks. Still, he thinks the focus needs to be on conservation in Africa, not on demand in China.

"Yes, elephants should be protected, but so should the tradition and art of ivory carving," he told the Guardian in January. "Honestly, we artists don’t need a lot of tusks. Those from elephants' natural deaths are more than enough for our creative works because each piece takes months, sometimes years, to finish."

Many conservationists, on the other hand, argue that any legal market for ivory encourages and facilitates poaching by providing cover for the trade in trafficked tusks.

The Chinese special administrative region of Hong Kong also has a thriving ivory market, which is regulated separately from mainland China's. Conservationists fear that Hong Kong's market may heat up in response to the shutdown in China. But Hong Kong too is considering closing its market. Last year, it announced a five-year plan to phase out the trade, and on Monday, its Legislative Council began debate on the proposal.

On March 28, Hong Kong convicted two people for illegal ivory possession, using radiocarbon dating to prove that the ivory was obtained after the 1990 international ban. They were fined $770 and $1,030.

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