Vietnam, already a main driver of demand for illegally poached rhino horn, is fast becoming a major market for illegal ivory.  A new report by the leading ivory and rhino horn trade researchers Lucy Vigne and Esmond Martin reveals that the amount of ivory on sale there has increased by over 600% in the last eight years.  Vigne and Martin established through first-hand research in Vietnam that, “Of all the ivory industries in Asia, Vietnamese carvers have multiplied in number and increased their production of illegal ivory items the most rapidly since 2008” (Lucy Vigne and Esmond Martin, Vietnam’s Illegal Ivory Trade Threatens Africa’s Elephants, Nairobi: Save the Elephants, 2016, p..7).


The country, which has well-established smuggling routes for rhino horn and thriving, uncontrolled cross-border trade with China, is now importing large quantities of poached raw ivory from Africa and selling tens of thousands of pieces of carved ivory (mainly to buyers taking it to China).  Vigne and Martin found 242 retail outlets with 16,099 pieces of ivory openly displayed for sale in Ho Chi Minh City, Ban Ma Thuot and in villages in the north near the Chinese border. On the basis of the evidence they gathered and the testimony to them of officials, carvers and wildlife trade investigators in Vietnam and China they came to the conclusion that Vietnam has become the main route for the smuggling of ivory and other wildlife products into China, especially since the Chinese government has pledged to combat illegal ivory imports and has instituted a tighter surveillance regime at major ports and airports.  The 700km land border, with numerous poorly monitored crossing points, little bilateral cooperation by customs and other law enforcement agencies and a ”booming online trade” in illegal wildlife products has enabled Vietnam to adopt this new role (Vigne and Martin, p.14).


Reading the report and in a meeting with Lucy Vigne, I found out that Vietnam has built on a tradition of ivory carving over many centuries to establish a new role for itself and has used old trade routes dating back to the 15th century to take a large share of the smuggling of ivory into China.  Although a member of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna), which bans the international trade in ivory, Vietnam has loopholes in its domestic laws on ivory that allow ivory obtained before laws banned its sale in 1992   CITES regulations do not compel countries to ban domestic trade.


Ivory carving and selling can be a lucrative source of earnings for Vietnamese craftsmen, even though the report says that they are paid $200-400 a month, a quarter of the rates paid in China.  The illegal ivory, the vast majority smuggled in from Africa using a variety of routes from where it is poached in West and Central Africa, Tanzania and Mozambique, is mainly in the form of small tusks weighing 1-3kg and small pieces of ivory cut from tusks.  The price ranges from $889 to $1,334 per kg, averaging at $1,100, the latter being the current going rate for raw ivory in China.


At the end of 2015, Vigne and Martin had reported that the market price for ivory was declining, and in China had dropped from $2,100 per kg to $1,200. They cautioned at the time that even at this lower price the incentive for poor people in African range states to engage in poaching to feed demand was still high and they would still do it if the middlemen and organisers of illicit trade networks still wanted to buy ivory (see Save the Elephants, Sharp Fall in the Prices of Elephant Tusks in China, and Heidi Voigt,  How Kenya’s Mombasa Became the Nexus for the Global Ivory Trade Threatening
Africa?s Elephants,  Wall Street Journal,  November 16, 2015,. The fall may be linked with China’s economic downturn or the Chinese moratorium on imports of trophy ivory and attempts to enforce anti-smuggling measures more strenuously. Whether the fall continues or the new price level is sustained remains to be seen. The extent to which Vietnam meets Chinese demand as China’s own imports of raw tusks is restricted by law enforcement could have an effect on Chinese demand and prices.

China has been making an effort to be seen to be combating the illegal trade and trying to discourage and punish smuggling of tusks or cut and worked ivory from Africa. On 8 May 2015, during a visit to the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang tried to prove China’s commitment to fighting poaching by pledging $10m to assist law enforcement. This followed the Chinese announcement in February 2015 of a 12 month ban on imports of carved ivory and tusks. The measure would not affect the legal domestic trade or the sale of ivory from government stockpiles and also excluded Hong Kong, with its extensive legal and illegal trade. Conservationists in Africa welcomed it but said far more needed to be done to stop the slaughter of elephants. Douglas-Hamilton told the author that he didn’t put any great faith in it as a measure on its own but hoped it was a signal that China was moving towards more viable tightening of controls (personal communication with the author).


The adoption of a tougher profile by China in controlling the ivory trade was accompanied by the crushing of 660kg of seized ivory in Beijing in a joint event organised by China’s CITES officials, the customs agency, WildAid and the WCS in May 2015 (The Guardian, 29 may 2015).. A government statement released to coincide with the ivory destruction said, “We will strictly control ivory processing and trade until the commercial processing and sale of ivory and its products are eventually halted”.  The crushing event was also used to publicise the launching of an offensive against the importing of ivory by Chinese nationals coming back from abroad, under the slogan “Bring No Ivory Home”.

The role of Hong Kong as the world’s largest retail market for ivory and as a major transit hub for illicit ivory was detailed in WildAid’s report, Illusion of Control, in October 2015.  It  said that the Hong Kong authorities claim that they have strict controls in place to govern ivory sales does not stand up to scrutiny and that “corruption and obfuscation” were masking the extent of illicit trading by international smuggling syndicates.  Elizabeth Qat, a Hong Kong legislative councillor, told WildAid that “Time and again, the illegal ivory trade and ivory laundry in Hong Kong have been exposed…with no effective measures implemented to crack down on illicit sales and exports” (WilAid,  Undercover Report Unmasks Corrupt Hong Kong Ivory Trade,  Traders admitted to undercover investigators compiling the report that they imported illegal ivory to replenish ivory sold from the legal inventory and many used faked documents and others means to continue importing and selling illicit ivory. Over 90 per cent of the ivory sold in Hong Kong is sold to people from mainland China.

In September 2015, during President Xi Jinping’s official visit to the United States, he and President Obama made a joint pledge to combat the ivory trade and announced what the White House called “nearly complete bans on ivory import and export, including significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies, and to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory”( The White House, Fact Sheet: President Xi Jinping’s State Visit to the United States  https://www.whitehouse.gove/the-press-office/2015/9/25/fact-sheet-president-xi-jinping-visit ). China repeated that it would phase out domestic trade, though it fell short of banning all trade and was vague about what “nearly complete” meant.  Similarly, when in January 2016 in his annual policy address Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, said he would phase out Hong Kong’s “local ivory trade” and impose heavier penalties for smuggling and illicit trading, he didn’t give a timetable or say whether this meant a total ban on all trade including exports to China (CNN, 13 January 2016, in Save The Elephants News Service,

The major development in China’s role as the major market and so driver of demand was the promise by the Chinese government in 2015 to end, for a year, the importing of ivory in the form of hunting trophies (the only legal way to import post-1989 unworked ivory) and to move to end the domestic ivory trade. In March 2016, the moratorium on imports was extended to 2020.   It is believed that China has sufficient stocks of ivory to supply the domestic market if a long-term ban on imports of ivory follows on from China’s pledge in September 2015 to  stop ivory trading. China has large stockpiles of legal ivory and private traders hold illegal stocks.  The government has released about five tons a year from its stockpile for sale  to licensed carving workshops, according to China’s top CITES official, Meng Xianlin (Rachel Bale, With Ivory Ban Imminent, What Will Happen to China’s Legal Stockpile?  ). In  2009, official stocks were believed to be at 73 tons. If 35 tons have been sold to traders in the last seven years, then China has about 38 tons left, which without any supplement from illegal imports or illicit stocks held by private traders, would give over seven years’ supply to traders before stocks are exhausted and imports would again be needed if the entire trade and domestic demand have not been suppressed (Bale, 2015).


Vigne and Martin’s report on Vietnam  suggests that the tougher regime on imports in China may be circumvented through routes across the land border from Vietnam, with large amounts of worked ivory or small ivory pieces being imported to China by Chinese travellers, whose bags are rarely checked when crossing between the two countries.  Despite Chinese policy to reduce the trade, there is clearly strong demand still in China and Vietnam’s carvers and smugglers could be one way of supplying that market.  There is no convincing evidence yet that demand reduction campaigns are seriously affecting buyers in China, and certainly not those who may buy ivory as an investment, and so Vietnam’s carvers and smugglers could ensure that the market for poached African ivory remains and the illegal killing continues.


Professor Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and teaches at the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent. He runs the Africa-News and Analysis website.  His book      His book, Ivory. Power and Poaching in Africa , is being published by Hurst and Co in November 29016.