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Environment

The World Just Got a Lot Safer for Elephants – Here’s Why

China, the world’s largest importer of ivory, is set to shut down domestic trade of the poached good amid overwhelming popular support, and now the market is responding.

The price of ivory is plummeting in China, according to a new report from Save the Elephants. The nation accounts for as much as 70% of the global ivory trade.

This is great news for African elephants, which have been so relentlessly poached for their tusks that they’re considered vulnerable, one step above endangered.   

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At the start of 2014, the average wholesale price of tusks was $2,100 per kg ($4,600 per lb). By late 2015, that number was halved to $1,100 per kg ($2,400), and fell again to $730 per kg ($1,600 per lb) as of February 2017.  

Researchers found many reasons for this drop.

“An economic slowdown has resulted in fewer people able to afford luxury goods; a crack-down on corruption is dissuading business people from buying expensive ivory items as ‘favors’ for government officials, and the Chinese government has made strong commitments to close down the nation’s ivory trade.”

Last December, China announced all commercial processing and sale of ivory would cease by March 31 of this year.

In addition to the drop in wholesale price, researchers reported the number of licensed ivory factories fell from 37 to 34 in 2015 while the number of licensed retail outlets reduced from 145 to 130, suggesting that the market is winding down.

Nevertheless, they found 141 illegal outlets in 6 different cities.

Pendants and other small jewelry were the most popular items for sale.

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The continued black market shows that passing the law is one thing, while ensuring people follow it is another.

“The legal trade will end this year, but the impact of China’s ban will be determined by their ability to enforce the new rules and prevent illegal trade,” the report said.

There is reason to be optimistic, however. One researcher said illegal sales of ivory items has declined since 2013, as many vendors are using alternative materials like mammoth ivory, dug up from the Russian tundra, and clam shells.

If that trend continues, Africa’s elephant population could see a resurgence after being killed by the thousands in recent decades.

Both male and female African elephants have tusks while only some male Asian elephants have tusks.

Poachers killed 100,000 African elephants in just three years, according to a 2014 study. In central Africa, the total elephant population declined by 64 percent during one decade.

In addition to the massive loss of life, Africa’s economy took a serious hit – the loss of elephants cost 25 nations about $25 million per year in tourism revenue, the Guardian reported last November:

“Corruption, lack of resources and increasingly sophisticated poachers have hamstrung African countries’ efforts to stem the trade,” the piece argued.

Since controlling the supply side show’s little sign of improvement, the future of elephant populations is dependent on curtailing demand, which is precisely what’s happening in China, and elsewhere around the world.

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In September 2015, China and the US, the two largest ivory markets, made a joint agreement to end their ivory trades. At the time, ivory prices had tripled during the four previous years, highlighting the need for decisive action and the sheer popularity of ivory.

The following June, the US banned all ivory sales, extending laws that previously applied to importation.

Last year, Hong Kong announced it would end its ivory trade.

Symbolic victories aren’t good enough when it comes to conservation. China’s ivory ban is a tremendous step forward – as long as it’s effectively enforced.

“This is a critical period for elephants,” Iain Douglas-Hamilton, President and Founder of Save the Elephants said in a statement. “With the end of the legal ivory trade in China, the survival chances for elephants have distinctly improved. We must give credit to China for having done the right thing by closing the ivory trade. There is still a long way to go to end the excessive killing of elephants for ivory, but there is now greater hope for the species.”