China’s Ivory Ban: Achievements and Enforcement Challenges

Elephant poaching in Africa has declined steadily over the last 5 years, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)[1]. However, global illegal ivory trade is the highest it has been in 6 years, even despite a near total ivory ban adopted by the United States in 2016[2], and a similar ban enacted by China[3] later that year, effective at the end of 2017.

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Image source:

China has, until recently, been the largest market for poached elephant ivory worldwide, and imports most of the world’s raw ivory. The ivory, typically smuggled or traded illicitly, is usually used to make ivory carvings. China’s ban, announced through an official notice by the State Council, attempts to tackle this problem by phasing out commercial trading of elephant ivory and ivory products, monitoring of designated businesses by Chinese government authorities and helping vendors transition away from trade in ivory products.

Image source:

Image source:

The ban builds on a growing recognition by Chinese policy and lawmakers of the importance of biodiversity conservation and, more specifically, the protection of elephants from poaching and illegal trade. China committed to combatting illegal trade and hunting of elephants and other wild animals in its 13th Five Year Plan (2016-2020). Moreover, the revision of China’s Wildlife Protection Law in 2016 sought to strengthen protection of wild animals and their natural habitats. Under the law, “Grade I protected animals” (“国家 一级保护动物”), including the Asian elephant, are given primary protection. However, the law met controversy on issues such as the hunting of animals for captive breeding as well as the use of wild animals in traditional medicine.

With China poised as such a crucial link in the ivory trade, the ban, among these other efforts, is very important. However, significant challenges remain. These include the following:

  • Gaps in the law: As the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) observes[4], the State Council’s notice makes an exception for legal ivory for use in museums and other non-commercial activity, as well as “cultural relics of a legal origin”(“来源合法的象牙文物”), which could be auctioned after obtaining a relevant permit. The effective enforcement of such an exception rests on effective appraisal of ivory as antiques.
  • E-commerce: China’s e-commerce industry is growing rapidly, arguably faster than that of the West. With it comes potential for illicit trading of ivory products. A high profile criminal case in Sichuan province[5] involves a young man purchasing 6 illegally obtained elephant tusks through Malaysia for RMB30,000 (~USD4,800). China has yet to officially enact a law governing e-commerce[6], and sales between individuals may be able to skip past the radar of government authorities.
  • Hong Kong: Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region under China but operates under a different legal system. The territory has long been a major transit point for trade in illegal products, ranging from ivory to illegal timber from Southeast Asia.[7] The territory has initiated its own ban on ivory as of last month, with potentially harsh criminal penalties imposed on violators[8], however the ban does not come into full effect until 2021.
  • China’s neighbors: Many of China’s neighbors, including countries in the Lower Mekong Region, are relatively poor and plagued with weak law enforcement regimes. Chinese consumers of ivory, increasingly mobile internationally, often travel to these countries to obtain ivory at cheaper prices. Laos, for instance, has seen illegal ivory sales skyrocket in the last several years, with visitors from China purchasing 80% of the ivory on sale. Laos is a signatory to CITES, but the law is sparsely enforced, with only one seizure of illegal ivory in nearly 14 years[9].

China’s ivory ban is indeed an important step in halting trade in the country with the greatest demand for the product. Closure of legislative gaps, effective coordination between government agencies and improved cooperation with its neighbors will make the ban stronger.


[1]See CITES website:

[2] This ban may see a challenge by the Trump Administration:

[3] Notice of the General Office of the State Council on the Orderly Cessation of Commercial Processing and Sale of Ivory and Ivory Products (《国务院办公厅关于有序停止商业性加工销售象牙及制品活动的通知》(国办发[2016]103号

[4] China Dialogue: “Roundtable: Can China help end the ivory trade for good?” [retrieved February 26, 2018]


[6] Drafts of such a law are currently under preparation

[7] See Global Witness Report from 2015: “The Cost of Luxury: Cambodia’s Illegal Trade of Precious Wood with China.”



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