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    What Should China Do With Its Stockpile of Soon-to-Be-Banned Ivory?

    Experts argue that a government buyback is the most cost-effective solution.

    Putting China’s pledge to fight elephant poaching into effect, 67 ivory-carving factories and retailers — about one-third of the country’s certified businesses — were scheduled to shut down on Friday.

    The remaining 22 carving factories and 85 retailers will close down and stop selling ivory, respectively, by the end of the year, according to an announcement by China’s State Forestry Administration. The closures are a result of a ban announced last year by China’s cabinet, the State Council, following an agreement between the leaders of the U.S. and China in 2015.

    But the ban does not specify what to do with China’s large stockpile of ivory, estimated by wildlife conservation experts to be around 40 tons. China imported 62 tons of ivory from Africa after receiving approval by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 2009. Experts warn that if China doesn’t manage and monitor the stockpiles properly, some of them might end up on the black market.

    Qin Tianbao, a professor at the Research Institute of Environmental Law of Wuhan University in central China, told Sixth Tone that he believes the best way to deal with the stockpile is for the government to buy all of it back. “If the government doesn’t buy back the ivory, and doesn’t supervise closely, the risk that it will enter the black market will always exist, and the cost of cracking down on the illegal trade could be even higher,” he said, adding that such cases would tarnish China’s global image.

    Zhang Li, a professor at the School of Life Sciences at Beijing Normal University, estimated in a 2015 study that the cost for the Chinese government to buy the ivory back would be around $84 million. Even though the government might balk at such a bill, Zhang explained that it already spends billions of dollars on what it calls “ecological compensation” for farmers and herders who have made way for conservation projects. “If they don’t plan to [buy back the ivory],” Zhang told Sixth Tone, “they will need very strict regulations to track the entire stockpile.”

    But the Chinese government isn’t likely to spend millions on buying back ivory, according to Zhou Fei, head of the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC China. “Think about the 1993 ban on trading tiger bones and rhino horns,” he told Sixth Tone. “So far, all of the stockpiles have remained in the hands of farms and factories.” Experts say that the stock of tiger bones is still increasing, and that many businessmen in the industry are holding out hope for a future policy change that will allow them to resume trading the bones.

    When Sixth Tone tried to contact several dozen ivory carvers and retailers on Thursday and Friday, only one person, Li Lanjun, owner of a carving factory and shop in eastern China’s Fujian province, agreed to speak on the record.

    Li said her family has been running their ivory business for a few decades now. “Many clients come to us because of my father’s reputation as a skilled carver,” she said, adding that most of the family’s income comes from carving and trading hardwood instead of ivory, but that they nevertheless have a stock of ivory in their warehouse. Now, because of the ban, she doesn’t know what they’ll do with it.

    “Our [ivory] business started to decline in 2014, and I think it’s definitely related to those ads,” Li said, referring to recent campaigns featuring high-profile celebrities from both China and the West imploring people to stop buying ivory.

    Despite leaving the issue of what to do with China’s stockpile of ivory undecided, the closure of the legal ivory market is expected to have a positive effect by reducing demand and sending a signal to the black market.

    A report issued by environmental conservation organization Save the Elephants on Wednesday concluded that the average price for ivory on China’s legal market has dropped by 50 percent, from $2,100 per kilogram in early 2014 to just $730 in February 2017. A similarly steep decline has been observed in the illegal market, it said.

    Save the Elephants said in its report that an economic slowdown, a crackdown on corruption, the government’s strong commitment to close down the market, and public awareness are all driving factors behind the decline in prices.

    But many black-market traders are still active on the internet: Without much effort, one can find hundreds of advertisements online. When Sixth Tone introduced itself as a potential consumer, several dealers advertised their wares via messaging apps and social media platforms. The dealers still sell ivory — from raw material to ornate carvings — at prices ranging from $1,400 to $2,900 per kilo. Some said they were having a clearance sale.

    Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

    (Header image: Border police officers inspect a shipment of smuggled ivory in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, March 8, 2016. VCG)