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China’s Ivory Trade

China’s Ivory Trade: Timeline


The 1989 worldwide ban on ivory trade dramatically reduced the rampant poaching of the previous decade and gave decimated elephant populations a chance to recover. But the respite was short-lived.


CITES decided to allow so-called ‘one-off’ sales of stockpiled ivory by some elephant range countries: Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe were allowed to sell more than 49,000 kg of ivory to Japan.

2002 and 2008

In 2002 another sale was approved, which resulted in 105,000 kg of ivory being shipped to China and Japan, and in 2008 yet another sale to China of 108 tonnes.  As predicted, the consequences of fueling a legal market for ivory in China were catastrophic, allowing the illegal market to flourish as never before. Poaching escalated to unprecedented levels to satisfy the growing demand. Hundreds of thousands of African elephants were brutally slaughtered to feed the demand for ivory spurred by the ill-judged CITES sales.


China’s demand for ivory soared in the new millennium as China’s newly affluent middle class could afford to buy carved ivory objects, seen as status symbols. African elephants were being annihilated in unimaginable numbers just so their tusks could be turned into trinkets for faraway markets. Soon the Chinese market grew to account for 70% of the global demand. Other countries also played a huge part in the consumption of ivory – the USA was the second biggest global consumer, and legal and illegal markets flourished in the UK and the rest of the EU.


Poaching surged in these years, with an estimated 96 elephants killed every day. At these levels of poaching, it was feared that elephants would become extinct within a generation.  Pressure grew for a ban. The focus was on China, the biggest global consumer of ivory, and international pressure grew for a domestic ivory ban there. People took to the streets to protest, and in 2014 the first Global March for Elephants and Rhinos (GMFER) took place across 6 continents and in over 150 cities, the largest global gathering ever to unite to save a species. In London, we organised a march through the city centre to Parliament Square, attended by several hundred people.


Action for Elephants UK was in the forefront of protests, holding a demo outside the Chinese embassy and a second Global March this year. We sent an open letter to the Chinese premier; signed by David Attenborough, Jane Goodall, Richard Leakey, and many more, the letter got international media attention (and a note of thanks from Prince William, who was in China at the same time, also calling for elephants’ survival). In all, our group held 10 protests and events between 2014 and 2017 to demand an end to ivory trade. The US State department acknowledged the marches as one of the biggest wins for elephants in 2015: ‘According to experts, these marches keep political pressure on leaders to protect the world’s largest animal.’

Sep 2015

In a historic step, President Obama and President Xi, the leaders of the world’s two biggest ivory markets, agreed to take joint action to enact bans on the ivory trade in their countries. The enormity of this move, and its suddenness, left many people sceptical. But then the pace gathered, China met its milestones, and ivory bans by the two countries began to seem a real possibility.


In April 2016 Kenya held the world’s largest ivory and rhino-horn bonfire, sending a clear message that Kenya would not stand for such trade. The tusks of around 8,000 elephants and the horns of more than 300 rhinos were burned that day.

In June President Obama fulfilled the commitment made during the 2015 meeting with President Xi and imposed a near total ban on the commercial trade of ivory.

In December China announced a timeline for closing down its domestic ivory trade in the space of one year, which again met with skepticism.


On 31 December 2017 China announced the complete closure of its domestic ivory market and a ban on all commercial trade in ivory. This historic step by China, and the short time in which it was achieved, was more than anyone had dared hope, and was hailed as a lifeline for Africa’s elephants.

What Does the China Ban Mean for Elephants?

For China’s ban to work, the laws must be enforced, and raising awareness about the ban and reducing demand for ivory are also critical. Following the ban, surveys showed a clear trend in the reduction of demand, with far more people in China saying they wouldn’t buy ivory than before the ban. It was crucial that neighbouring countries follow suit and shut down markets across Asia, but tragically that did not happen. Illegal ivory trade continued, with new hubs expanding in Japan (the largest remaining legal ivory market), Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Myanmar. While poaching levels have declined from those of 5-10 years ago, it remains a major threat to elephants’ survival.

It is still too soon to know the full impact of the China ban, but the effects of closing down demand from the world’s biggest ivory consumer shouldn’t be underestimated. If that were the only threat elephants had to face, maybe they’d stand a chance. But today elephants face many other threats to their survival, which are even more devastating and difficult to control as they grow more severe: loss and fragmentation of habitat and migration routes, escalating conflict with humans at every turn, and the calamitous effects of climate change, including diminishing food sources and severe droughts. And though elephants’ tusks may be less in demand by poachers, a whole new industry is thriving in products made from elephant skin, hair, and other body parts.

Additionally, the leaders of the southern African elephant-range states try to manage their elephant populations by different means, most of which are focused on monetizing  elephants (through trophy hunting fees, attempts to sell them abroad, despite it being illegal, selling their ivory) or using them for political benefit (such as killing what the government may label as a ‘problem elephant’ to gain rural votes), rather than investing in long-term sustainable solutions that benefit both elephants and communities. They tend to resent westerners and NGOs ‘interfering’ in such management and have threatened to leave CITES if they’re not allowed to sell their huge ivory stockpiles. In May 2022 they signed the Hwange Declaration calling to lift the ban on trade.

Ivory Trade Online

Ivory trade is also finding new markets and networks online, which is particularly worrying as the UK Ivory Act doesn’t extend sufficiently strict regulations for selling online. A 2020 report by the organisation Traffic revealed that ivory trade is rife on social media in Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Born Free’s 2022 report showed high levels of ivory are being sold online, but there was a decline from the previous survey.

‘Ice ivory’

The rise in the trade of mammoth tusks (known as ‘ice ivory’) is alarming. The warming climate is uncovering mammoth tusks across the northern hemisphere, mainly in Siberia, and there is evidence that traders are trying to sustain the illegal ivory market by selling mammoth tusks as elephant ivory (structurally, the two are practically identical). While five more endangered ivory-bearing species were added to the Ivory Act in 2023 (hippopotamus, walrus, narwhal, orca, and sperm whale), the sale of mammoth tusks is an unregulated aspect of the ivory trade that must be addressed. See also Ice Ivory to White Gold: Links Between the Illegal Ivory Trade and the Trade in Geocultural Artifacts.

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