Ivory products. Photo WWF
It’s Golden Week again, which means the cities of Southeast Asia are seeing an influx of tourists from China visiting iconic sites, buying souvenirs and tasting local delicacies.
They are travelling from a country that has had recent success in tackling the illegal ivory trade. This trade has caused a serious decline in elephant populations across Asia and Africa, but a ban in China two years ago resulted in a significant drop in ivory purchased within China. And it seems to be sticking. A new WWF survey of 2000 Chinese nationals found that overall demand for ivory among Chinese consumers remains down two years after the ban. Simply put, bans work. Nearly 80 per cent of respondents in the survey said the ban would prevent them from buying in the future.
That’s the good news. But Golden Week is not so golden for conservationists and elephants as China’s neighbours are increasingly feeling the pressure from the ivory ban. Like a balloon that’s squeezed in one place and simply bulges in another, Thailand, Laos, Việt Nam, Myanmar and Cambodia are seeing an impact from the China ban.
According to the study, this pressure is coming from those who travel regularly outside the country and a group known as “diehard buyers,” those individuals who are the least likely to be swayed to stop purchasing regardless of the law or other deterrents.
Among the Chinese nationals surveyed, buying during travels has increased from 18 per cent in 2018 to 27 per cent of travellers in 2019. Thailand, Hong Kong SAR, and Cambodia are the destinations most cited by travellers as the locations they bought ivory products outside Mainland China.
Thailand is the number one destination for Chinese tourists during Golden Week, part of the 10 million expected to visit for the entire year and the millions more travelling to neighbouring countries. It is legal in Thailand to purchase ivory from regulated markets that sell only domestically sourced ivory. But many buyers are unaware that it is illegal to transport it across international borders. Thailand and its neighbours are all signatories to the CITES Treaty, meaning they are required to enforce bans against the international commercial trade of ivory and many other endangered species like tigers and rhinos.
The ongoing purchasing of ivory within the Greater Mekong region is troubling news and highlights the real need to increase awareness about the implications and penalties for illegal wildlife purchases. The most significant reason respondents to the China survey gave for not buying ivory was due to the fact that it is illegal. That’s why WWF and other organisations are trying to reach as many travellers as possible this Golden Week with messages about the fact that purchasing ivory during their trip and taking it across borders is illegal.
Across the region, tourists are being met with messages at airports, on social media networks and at shopping centres warning about the penalties for purchasing and transporting ivory. Tour guides are learning how to better inform their clients about the issue, and some airlines are using their communication channels to educate travellers about what they should buy and what to avoid.
Tour guides are key in this effort. They have the most influence on which shops travellers visit and they have the most one-on-one interactions with them. They also have a high degree of trust that can go a long way toward influencing purchasing decisions.
There are additional misconceptions about ivory that awareness campaigns need to address, including the fact that many who purchase it believe that it comes from elephants that have died naturally. The overwhelming majority of ivory for sale is from elephants that have been killed just to get their tusks.
While much more needs to be done, there has been real progress made recently in the Greater Mekong region. Myanmar has made great strides, for instance. The Yangon regional government recently declared strict enforcement against the sale of illegal wildlife products such as ivory at Shwedagon Pagoda and Bogyoke Market. Laos has been cracking down on shops in the notorious Golden Triangle and major cities that openly sell ivory and other wildlife products. Prime Minister’s Order Number 05 instructed government officials to strictly enforce existing laws and the new penal code significantly increased penalties for selling wildlife products illegally.
Việt Nam has made significant strides to deter traffickers and reduce demand since a new penal code went into effect in January 2018 imposing harsher laws and penalties for the buying, selling, transporting, or possessing of endangered wildlife and wildlife products like ivory. An uptick in seizures and successful prosecutions has resulted in some of the longest jail sentences and fines than ever before, including a 10-year sentence for a Vietnamese man convicted of trafficking 27 endangered big-headed turtles and 4 Asiatic black bear paws; the longest sentence ever imposed for wildlife crime in Việt Nam.
These are all positive signs but tackling the scourge of illegal wildlife trade, and in particular, ivory trade, is a marathon, not a sprint. Much like the balloon, if it is stopped in one location it will erupt elsewhere, including online. In addition to continuing awareness raising programmes, there needs to be a much stronger emphasis on sophisticated law enforcement and cooperation across international boundaries. And prosecutions need to be just as effectively administered as arrests. Wildlife crime is not treated as seriously as other crimes like drugs and human trafficking, but it should be.
If enough action is taken over the next 365 days, perhaps next year’s Golden Week will be a week of celebration for not only tourists but also the world’s elephants and other endangered species. WWF