Amidst many political issues that have had Westminster in contortions, a move to ban all ivory products has been proposed by the British government. Headed by Prince William, a block on the ivory trade coming to the United Kingdom is being considered by the government. On October 6, Environment Secretary Michael Gove announced plans for the UK to impose a ban on sales of the material in a bid to halt the poaching of elephants. The initial plans that have been put forward will be subject to a 12-week consultation ending in December.

The seriousness of the issue is learned in the number of elephants left in existence. Now just 20,000, the population has decreased by a third, in the last decade alone. Gove asserted: “The decline in the elephant population fuelled by poaching for ivory shames our generation. The need for radical and robust action to protect one of the world’s most iconic and treasured species is beyond dispute.” This message from the UK is important: Britain is currently the largest exporter of legal ivory in the world, namely to Hong Kong and China.

There are four exemptions to this incoming ban: musical instruments, items containing a small percentage of ivory, important historical, cultural, and artistic items, and sales to and betweens museums. The Musicians’ Union, Music Industries’ Association and the Association of British Orchestras’ applauded the exemption of instruments from the ban. Despite ivory not being used in instruments since 1989, various older instruments do contain it, including some of the most prized musical instruments throughout history.

Curbing demand?

Things have progressed faster on the other side of the pond. In June 2016, the US Fish and Wildlife Service published their final revising of the rule under section 4(d) pertaining to African elephants. The new regulation, which constituted an almost total ban of the commercial trade of ivory, came into play already the following month. But the main problem remains with other markets.

By far the largest consumer of ivory products is China. The market is driven by the Chinese middle class who see ivory items as symbols of wealth and status. The country is known to have the largest illegal ivory trade in the world according to a report by Cites. In 2015, after being pressured by campaign groups the government has crushed up to 6.2 tons of seized illegal ivory in an effort to slow down the market. The Minister of the State Forestry Administration Zhao Shucong said at a Beijing event, “we will strictly control ivory processing and trade until the commercial processing and sale of ivory and its products are eventually halted.” But out of all the nations trying to put an end to the business of ivory, internationally China is met with the most scepticism with regards to its commitment.

Hong Kong had already began to abolish the trade the year before, by incinerating 30 tons of confiscated ivory. The government is determined to stamp out the illegal ivory trade, but seems to be allowing legal selling to continue. Tourists – especially from China – are still visiting the country with the sole intention of buying ivory items.

As with any market that is suddenly outlawed, the illegal ivory trade has had to find a new home. This new haven is Laos, one of the poorest countries in Asia. Many Chinese run shops have been sprouting in the country’s capital Vientiane and the ancient capital city of Luang Prabang. Geared toward the Chinese buyer, these shops sell many different kinds of ivory paraphernalia. Considering their country hopes to implement its total ban on ivory sales by the end of 2017, it is little wonder that Chinese traders are looking elsewhere.

Fortunately, these are the last few splutters of a dying market that is being stamped out by governments across the world. But the question is whether the black market will continue, or slowly fizzle out as the clamping down intensifies. The CEO of Save The Elephants Frank Pope said “it becomes that much more complicated when it’s not under their [China] territorial control.” As both legal and illegal traders are pushed out of countries they traditionally do business in, pressure must be put on the new havens.

With China, the US, and Hong Kong acting years before the United Kingdom, the question of what took Britain so long remains. In 2018, the UK will host the 4th International Wildlife Trade Symposium, where world leaders will come to London to discuss further measures and coordinated efforts. One major concern is that poaching is still continuing unabated, and conservation efforts are limited to working within the borders of the countries they are based in. It’s important that the UK now makes up for lost time, working together with other nations to protect the world’s elephant population.