An international law enforcement offensive against the illegal ivory trade appears to have done little to dampen demand in China and other Asian markets. Rather, it has helped force up the price, which in turn has made the risk involved in poaching and trafficking worth taking. Unfortunately, as the Sunday Morning Post reported, this has attracted militant extremist and terrorist groups to the trade in order to fund their violent operations.
The conflict between the law of supply and demand and the law itself defines the predicament of the African elephant and the challenge facing governments and conservationists if they are to save it from being a critically endangered species. To be sure, governments have stepped up efforts against the illegal trade in ivory. For example, 30 from Africa and Asia agreed at an African elephant summit last year to practise zero tolerance of poaching syndicates, with tough sentences and confiscation of assets. They include countries of origin of illegal ivory in Africa, transit ports such as Hong Kong and consumer destinations, principally China and Thailand.
To reinforce the message, China organised a ceremonial crushing of six tonnes of ornaments and elephant tusks worth up to US$12 million in January and, in May, Hong Kong destroyed an initial 1.2 tonnes of the city's stockpile of seized ivory of more than 30 tonnes.
But this has not deterred buyers. Prices paid by workshops and retail outlets in China have soared nearly 300 per cent in four years, according to field research partly funded by the Save the Elephants organisation. Measures to reduce the killing of elephants for ivory will fail without concerted international action to reduce the demand.
In this part of the world, that will involve cultural re-education as well as law enforcement. Ivory has always been in demand in China and elsewhere in Asia, where it is prized as a source of wisdom, a sign of nobility and symbol of wealth. Elephant populations were so threatened in the 1980s that trade in new ivory was mostly banned. Mainland China's rising wealth has meant a thriving illegal industry and a new crisis. Perhaps a good place to start would be to make it more widely known there that for an elephant's tusks to be taken it has to be killed. A study by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, admittedly seven years old, found 70 per cent of Chinese did not know this.