Bee-Elle brings us the final entry of her three-part Turn to Dust series on elephant conservation: The End of China’s Ivory Trade. You can read the first installment, War on Ivory, by clicking here, or read on for a look at the role that China’s recent ivory trade ban will play.

By Bee-Elle

Is the end of the global ivory trade in sight?
For thousands of years, elephants have been hunted for their tusks. Alongside gold, ivory has been traded since the days of ancient Egypt, and across different civilisations and eras, has satisfied the world’s desire for a material that symbolised wealth. Through the artistry of varying cultures, ivory has been shaped and moulded into different artefacts across the ages: from jewellery of the ancient Egyptians, religious figures of the ancient Chinese, weaponry of the Roman empire, to practical items including pistol grips, cutlery, piano keys and billiard balls of 19th century Europe and North America.

Around this time, mass demand for ivory spiked and ivory products were in large and constant supply to the growing markets of the west.

By the early 1900s, the world’s elephant population had plummeted from about 26 million to 10 million.


Since the time of ancient civilisations, ivory has been seen as a valued commodity across the world.

Humans have always found utility in the elephant and, in many ways, seen the animal as a commodity- fungible, perhaps disposable. It’s arguably in this negligent view, upon which the trade has grown, that has sent numbers of the African elephant plummeting to critically low numbers: within seven years, the population had reduced by a third.


A few centuries ago, there were about 26 million elephants. Today, there are fewer than 400,000.

Today, the world’s largest land animal is one of the most endangered species on the planet. The prognosis is grim: with the current rate of poaching, their imminent extinction will occur within the next couple of generations.

China’s growing economy, combined with its perception of ivory as a symbol of prestige, contributed to it becoming the world’s largest market of elephant ivory. In 2006, the Chinese Ministry of Culture claimed that it was an integral part of national cultural heritage. However, in a seemingly miraculous twist of fate a decade on, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a full ban of the commercial ivory trade by the end of 2017.

Changing times

The tides had finally turned in a monumental move, and were met with unanimous support worldwide. It was in line with China’s bid to become a global leader on environmental issues (an opportune time, given the weaker policies that were coming from the Trump administration), a clear indicator of China’s commitment to saving the species, and a global milestone in the bid to protect the African elephant.

Factories and retailers started closing down as early as March 2017- now in 2018, all of them have been closed down – and will have no doubt had an effect on reducing poaching rates. As to how much remains to be seen.

What is clear, however, is that the elephants now have much more of a fighting chance of survival. For the elephants to avoid extinction, however, more is required. A lot more.


China’s ban of the commercial ivory trade was a milestone in the bid to save the African elephant from extinction. The ban, however, has stimulated the illegal trade.

But what about other countries?

With strengthened law enforcement and crackdowns on corruption within China, tusks are being increasingly traded in neighbouring countries, and at much lower prices. Laos is now the fastest growing market for ivory, and Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia are following closely behind. There’s now more of an urgency to eliminate ivory within these neighbouring states, as it could slow down the impact of China’s full ban – or worse still, reverse it.

Africa’s role in curbing supply also needs to be ramped up and focussed.

While anti-poaching efforts, proper law enforcement and opposition for the trade from 29 African states continue, the corruption within governmental systems that enables poached tusks to leak through the gaps and legal loopholes remains a deep-seated and protracted issue that prevents any commercial trade ban from taking full effect.

Corruption, perhaps, is the hardest element to combat, and takes the longest time to eliminate.

The illegal market is thriving, and as long as it is, the elephants are dying.

The war against ivory is far from over. But hopefully with China’s leadership, the sentiment will cascade throughout Asia and spur more countries to solidify their commitment to saving elephants, and to take concerted action to rid the gaps and holes within governments that are allowing thousands of elephants to die on our watch.

For the elephants just don’t have time to wait. They never did, and at this current rate, they never will.


Elephants just don’t have time to wait.

See more of Bee-Elle’s incredible and important work via her website here.


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All images in the article ‘Turn to Dust Series: The End of China’s Ivory Trade’ are by Bee-Elle Photography. All Rights Reserved 2018.