China, followed by the United States, is the world’s biggest market for ivory. In China, ivory sculptures are prized possessions bought for both investment and as a sign of wealth. Ivory is also employed as an ingredient in some Chinese traditional medicines. To curb this demand, the Chinese government and NGO’s have been trying to educate the public about the devastating cost of the ivory trade and how it could potentially wipe out African elephants for good. It is customary to see billboards that depict this issue in metro stations and airports in China’s major cities.   In 2014, Premier Li Ke Qiang committed  10 million USD  to support wildlife conservation in Africa and in the same year, the Asian nation crushed 6.1 metric tons of ivory in a symbolic gesture.  And in Tanzania, an elderly Chinese woman nicknamed “Ivory Queen” was arrested and put through a highly publicized trial, charged with heading an international smuggling ring that trafficked 2.5 million USD of tusks to the Far East.

Unfortunately, these legal and public relations efforts have yet to prevent the dramatic decline of African elephants. China’s legal ivory stockpile is contributing to this, as illegal ivory that was acquired through the illicit poaching of African elephants is mingling with legally traded ivory. Some of the legally traded ivory comes from a stockpile that China purchased 9 years ago.  After the ban on international trade of ivory in 1989, China received permission from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to buy a stockpile in 2008. The stockpile was from elephants that died naturally. A National Geographic article reports that China had purchased 73 tons during this one-time sale from Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.  The article also conveys that since 2009, 5 tons of ivory have been licensed to carving workshops every year. This means that there are about 40 tons of ivory left in the stockpile, potentially camouflaging illegally obtained ivory.

Conservationists report that such one-off sales actually result in a spike in the slaughter of elephants. Prof. Solomon Hsiang at the University of California Berkeley and Nitin Sekar at Princeton University have found that legal sale is followed by “an abrupt, significant, permanent, robust and geographically widespread increase” in poaching. Even the researcher, Prof. Hsiang, has confessed, “We now have pretty striking evidence that [one-off legal sales of ivory] can be catastrophic…I used to be a big proponent of legalization in general to reduce the adverse effects of black markets. But through doing this work, I have realized you have to be much more cautious…my own views have changed dramatically.”