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Tusks, skins and waste recycling


For the natural world, China’s rise may not be so worrisome


Look what the new year has brought


UNTIL the end of 2017, carved elephant tusks were still sold legally in China. International trade in ivory had been banned by the government since 1990, but not domestic transactions. At a shop in a glitzy mall in Beijing, the manager showed off his prize exhibit: a carving the size of a football of 30 ivory spheres, one inside the other, each moving separately and intricately carved. It was an example of an ancient craftsmanship, and one that has no future. On January 1st China banned ivory sales. The last ivory-carving factories and shops (including the one in Beijing) closed.


Environmentalists have long fretted about the impact that a rising China will have on the natural world. They worry not only about carbon emissions but also that, one day, the last tiger will be killed so its penis can be turned into an ineffective aphrodisiac or the last elephant slaughtered so its tusks can be carved into a gift. Yet as China has grown richer, it has changed. Three pieces of news at the start of 2018 suggest that some of the worst environmental fears are not being realised.


The closure of the domestic ivory business (the first of the changes) goes back to a deal between Barack Obama, then America’s president, and Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart, in 2015. They promised a “nearly complete ban” on ivory sales. America duly banned transactions in 2016, except for those of century-old antique pieces. China closed a third of its ivory-carving workshops in early 2017 and the rest in the past few days. Illegal sales will doubtless continue. In 2017 officials in Hong Kong seized over seven tonnes of illegal ivory, the largest haul for 30 years. Hong Kong’s ivory market, which is regulated separately, remains open, but it is due to be phased out by 2022.


China’s actions seem to be having the desired effect. A study for Save the Elephants, a charity in Kenya, found that the average price of a kilogram of good-quality elephant tusk in China had fallen from $2,100 in 2014 to $730 in 2017 (see chart). The ban that has just taken effect is likely to drive prices down further. Elephants are still being slaughtered in vast numbers. It is even possible that the fall in the price of ivory may cause poachers to slaughter more beasts, since they need more tusks to make the same amount of money. But eventually, making ivory worth less should reduce the incentive to poach.


This is not the only case in which the government has sought to moderate the environmental consequences of Chinese tastes. A campaign led by a former basketball star, Yao Ming, helped slash demand for shark’s fin soup, a delicacy. Imports of dried fins fell from 4,800 tonnes in 2004 to 20 tonnes in 2014. The government also banned shark’s fin soup from official banquets and the sale of any edible product from endangered species, such as pangolin, whose scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine.


China is far from an animal-welfare paradise. By coincidence, on the day ivory sales were banned, the country cut the duty on imported donkey skin from 5% to 2%, the second of this year’s changes. Gelatine from boiled donkey hide is another ingredient in traditional medicine (skins, probably destined for the Chinese market, are pictured in Kenya). Campaigners say the action threatens the world’s donkey population, though it is hard to see how, given that there were 44m donkeys in 2016 and their numbers are rising. All things being equal, more demand from China ought to translate into more donkeys raised. But it is certainly pushing up the price of donkey-hide gelatine (see chart).


Indeed sometimes it is China’s modernisation that has the biggest environmental impact—as the third of the recent changes shows. China is not only the world’s biggest emitter of carbon, but the world’s largest recycler, treating just over half of exported plastic waste. Recycling, for all its benefits, is a filthy business. In one town that specialises in recycling used electronics, 80% of children were found to have excess lead in their blood. On January 1st China banned the import of 24 categories of waste, including household plastics. This should improve its own environment but is a problem in countries such as Britain which send China rubbish for processing. The head of the UK Recycling Association called it “a huge blow for us”.


If it is a shock, it is a pleasant one. As China gets richer it is taking the environment more seriously (see article). On balance, that benefits everyone.