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The Real Ivory Game

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Ivory for sale in a shop in Vientiane, Laos.

China’s new domestic ban on the ivory trade presents all the makings of an excellent global public-relations exercise. But it is a meaningless move in a country where enforcement against wildlife crimes is often just another exercise in window-dressing and lip service. 

One morning in December, I woke up to a news item on television featuring another Donald Trump Twitter statement — this time saying that China had been caught red-handed sidestepping the United Nations embargo on North Korea with ship-to-ship transfers of oil products on the high seas. It felt like déjà vu — certainly in the context of the rules and regulations associated with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), also a UN body meant to control illegal international trade.

A smuggler pushes his wares around an illegal border crossing.

Of course, the pattern of non-compliance to the convention is not restricted to China, but involves a wide range of parties.

At the end of 2017, China declared that it had closed down the domestic legal trade in ivory. Conservation-establishment players did victory laps, lauding the move as a major step in curtailing elephant poaching. The news website China.org featured an article entitled: “More efforts are needed to stamp out the ivory trade”, announcing that China had now done its bit and that it was up to the international community to follow suit.

Whenever I am at home and receive my daily Google updates on wildlife-trade issues, there are now enough of these announcements out there to give me the feeling that maybe something is indeed changing. That the world is finally taking the ivory issue seriously, a view reinforced by NGO-generated press releases that deal with enforcement issues and tales of success.

Then it is off on one of my usual gigs, packing the obligatory bag to do some filming and investigative work in regions like West Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia — which generally results in a serious reality check.

Reality bites particularly hard in the context of China; that country’s funnel effect in sucking up the planet’s biodiversity; as well as the control measures supposedly in place to curb the fallout. The Asian juggernaut clearly leads the demand for products coming from high-profile, protected species, but also from the more low-key victims: seahorses, starfish, sea cucumbers, turtles, abalone and so on.

To report on trends intended to counteract this global momentum, most items in the news feature what are obviously opportunistic, rather than systematically effective, enforcement activities against the illegal trade. On my trips, I regularly visit border enclaves controlled by Chinese nationals — in places like Laos and Myanmar — and habitually witness a complete lack of control. I see tons of illegal wildlife products for sale. The key clientèle are Han Chinese, who eventually take most items back into China.

A Chinese-owned shop in Laos advertising ivory products.

After checking into a flight from Hanoi, Vietnam, to Guangzhou, China, we actually filmed a couple in the departure hall — the wife retrieving from her purse a collection of ivory items to admire and try on. She had clearly just purchased them.

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