SNAPP: The Economics of the Chinese Ivory Trade

What Would an Economically Rational Chinese Ivory Trade Policy Look Like?

Principal Investigator(s): 

Li (Aster) Zhang, Alli Kang

Approximately 35,000 elephants are killed each year to supply the ivory trade. China is the main market for ivory; some 70% of large-scale seizures of illegal ivory involve China. Reducing overall demand for ivory in key markets is seen as a vital step towards eliminating the illegal killing of elephants. How to do so is the subject of much disagreement. A key issue at the nexus of wildlife conservation and human livelihoods is whether a legal trade in ivory is – or could become – beneficial to elephant conservation, natural resource management, and local and national economies. On one side, proponents of bans on all domestic ivory sales argue that the legal trade provides cover for large amounts of illegal ivory to enter the market, undermines law enforcement efforts as all points in the trade chain, and drives demand. On the other, proponents of a legal ivory trade argue that bans restrict supply and thus drive up prices, providing incentives to poachers and traffickers, while simultaneously undermining local peoples’ willingness to share the land with elephants.

This Working Group proposes to deliver three main outputs that will be the first comprehensive assessments of: 1) the economic costs and benefits of the current ivory trade situation in China, (i.e., limited legal trade as opposed to a complete ban); 2) the overall cost-benefit ratio of the ivory trade for local livelihoods, ecosystems, and other issues of human security, especially in key African elephant nations where poaching occurs; and 3) the effects of China’s ivory policies on wider China-Africa relations and resulting opportunities for more sustainable Chinese investment in Africa. Through analyses and policy recommendations delivered strategically to Chinese government ministries and international policy forums, this project will ensure that key Chinese stakeholders are provided with a balanced, informed, and comprehensive understanding of what it costs to regulate a legal trade compared to enforcing an outright ban and the wider socio-economic and environmental implications of different policies on ivory that existing analyses typically fail to consider.

This project is supported by the Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP), generously funded through founding grants by Shirley and Harry Hagey, Steve and Roberta Denning, Seth Neiman, Angela Nomellini and Ken Olivier, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

More information for project participants Visit the SNAPP website