Smooth white bracelets, intricate carvings of women in flowing gowns, and majestic horses are among the countless items that are disappearing from shop windows in mainland China as the government implements an ivory trading ban for the world’s largest consumer of ivory.

And now Hong Kong, the largest ivory retail market, is preparing to do the same. Lawmakers voted Jan. 31 to ban the sale of ivory starting in 2021, and increase penalties for wildlife crimes. Both bans include exceptions for certain antiques and cultural relics.

Wildlife researchers say the ivory bans in China and Hong Kong are promising steps toward conserving elephant populations, as legal markets often function as a cover for illegal markets. By closing legal markets of ivory, legislators and conservationists hope to further restrict access to ivory and lower prices and demand for ivory products.


“Bans on ivory reduce the incentive to poach for elephants because there’s nowhere for the ivory to go,” says Elly Pepper, deputy director of the wildlife trade initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.

Banning ivory, along with wider efforts to crack down on the illegal ivory trade, is ultimately aimed at saving elephants whose numbers are threatened by high levels of poaching.

An estimated 30,000 elephants are killed each year for their tusks. Elephant poaching in Africa has been in decline for the past five years, according to a 2016 report by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), but elephants are still at risk of extinction. “[Poachers] are killing more elephants than can be born,” says Jan Vertefeuille, senior director of advocacy and wildlife conservation at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Washington. “It’s still a huge problem.”

Illegal poaching often finds an outlet in legal markets. Though the international commercial trade of ivory has been effectively banned since 1990 under CITES, domestic ivory markets have continued, regulated by national and local governments.

“[T]hat really is the history of the ivory trade,” says Peter Knights, chief executive officer of WildAid in San Francisco. “When there’s been legal ivory trade, it’s served as a cover for laundering of illegal ivory.”

By closing domestic ivory markets, legislators aim to drive down demand, lowering the incentive to poach elephants. China’s ban affected the ivory market even before it was fully implemented.

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