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How China's Ivory Ban Could Affect Elephant Poaching In Africa

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For the past few years, China has been steadily cutting back on the legal ivory trade. And as of this week, it is completely illegal to buy or sell ivory in China. China's the largest ivory market in the world, and conservationists hope that the ban will lower the price of ivory, which would make elephant poaching less profitable. Earlier today I spoke with George Wittemyer, a conservation biologist at Colorado State University who studies the ivory trade. He said China's crackdown over the last few years has already lowered ivory prices, and the outright ban should lower them even more.

GEORGE WITTEMYER: Well, we're seeing evidence already that the price of ivory has come down from the peak, which was in around 2014, by nearly two-thirds today.

SHAPIRO: How do you even tell what the price of ivory is? It's not as though there's a stock market where this is traded publicly.

WITTEMYER: You have to go in and do classic market survey stuff where you essentially bargain for ivory products across different legal markets in China and assess what they're going for for different types of products - raw ivory, carved ivory, chopsticks, that kind of stuff. And you get an idea over time of what the general price is for different sectors in different locations. And that's what's used to ascertain the prices in a specific year.

SHAPIRO: Ivory is often seen as a symbol of prestige in China. Do you expect that to change as the legal market closes?

WITTEMYER: We hope so. The fact that China's taking this effort and making these policies go through is really sending a very clear signal about the provenance of ivory. I think there's been discussion about how well consumers knew how ivory was collected and obtained. I think this sort of recognition and broad representation of the fact that it's a really environmentally devastating product is going to have a big impact. And we hope that it tarnishes the image ivory has had. We hope it won't represent positive aspects of society.

SHAPIRO: Is there a risk of the trade just moving to countries in the region that have not banned legal ivory sales?

WITTEMYER: Yeah. We're already seeing movement of the ivory products. Already - Hong Kong has been a primary funnel for ivory products going into China. And Hong Kong has made statements that they will close their domestic ivory trade, but they haven't. And they're talking about closing it in 2021. And the details of that are still up to debate. And so unfortunately, the sort of consumable boundary or border exchange between Hong Kong and mainland China is very porous.

So people go into Hong Kong repeatedly, buy stuff and just carry it across the border. And it's sort of accepted, that practice, I guess. And so there's still a lot of ways to bring ivory in. In addition, we're also seeing an uptick in markets in Laos, in Vietnam, and it appears to be in response to this trade ban going on in China. So there's already movement happening.

But I think one of the really key indicators here is that we have seen evidence of a substantial price reduction for ivory in China. So there's - you know, it's a multiheaded hydra and possibly, hopefully, one of the main heads is being hacked off by the Chinese government.

SHAPIRO: I know China is the biggest consumer of ivory. If that market just disappeared tomorrow, how much of a difference would it make?

WITTEMYER: It would be massive. It would be an absolute massive impact. We don't know the direct proportion of Chinese consumption of ivory, but people have done general market surveys to try to assess this and the thought is that China's consuming about 70 percent of...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

WITTEMYER: ...Of the ivory, global ivory trade. And you can imagine what an impact that has on the wild populations.

SHAPIRO: Professor George Wittemyer is a conservation biologist at Colorado State University. Thanks so much.

WITTEMYER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.