Assessing wildlife trade on e-commerce sites in China, with a focus on mammoth ivory

The Wildlife Justice Commission has conducted with the support of Peace Parks Foundation targeted research to assess the levels of illegal wildlife trade on Chinese e-commerce platforms. In our report ‘Wildlife trade on e-commerce sites in China, with a focus on mammoth ivory: A Rapid Assessment’, analysis of this research reveals that the majority of advertised wildlife products are legally permitted for sale. However, the prevalence of mammoth ivory found legally for sale raises concerns about perpetuating demand for elephant ivory products which is now illegal in China.

Our research looked at e-commerce platforms like Alibaba and 1688, allowing us to conclude that measures taken by these platforms and by the Chinese government have helped curb online sales of illegal wildlife products. The research identified 4,297 advertisements of wildlife, parts and derivatives, in total, 637 (15%) advertisements were identified as referring to the sale of Protected species, while a minimum of 3,657 (85%) of the identified advertisements were classified as Not Protected and therefore are deemed to be legal. Items derived from mammoth ivory were the most common type of wildlife product for sale on these platforms.

Pending threats

The Wildlife Justice Commission is concerned by the sheer amount of mammoth ivory products documented for sale. Ivory products remain in high demand, and mammoth ivory can perpetuate the demand for elephant ivory. Recent reports from Japan suggest that elephant ivory is being mislabelled and sold as mammoth ivory.

Furthermore, the pending elephant ivory ban in Hong Kong SAR is due to come into full effect from 31 December 2021 and may create further pressure due to the long-standing demand for elephant ivory, while the generous profit margins generated from its trade may mean supply continues, albeit underground. Criminal networks are resourceful, and where demand exists, a supply chain will form to meet it.

Law enforcement and policy makers must make efforts to understand how the legal mammoth ivory supply chain operates. Traditional ivory markets such as China, Hong Kong SAR, and Japan need to implement measures to ensure continued demand for ivory does not threaten wild elephants.

The sourcing and sustainability of mammoth ivory

As climate change drives the thawing of the Arctic permafrost, more woolly mammoth remains are being unearthed in Siberia. “Mammoth hunting” has become the main source of income in more remote areas. Yakutia, in northern Russia, now prohibits the export of mammoth tusks longer than three metres. This legislation will hopefully mean better control and transparency of the trade. However, the scale of the mammoth ivory trade documented in our research raises concerns as to whether mammoth ivory demand levels can be legally met while such measures are in place.

The cultural significance of Chinese ivory carving

In 2006, traditional Chinese ivory carving skills were listed as an “intangible national heritage”. In 2016, notice was given announcing the complete ban on elephant ivory trade in China by 2017, with the specific instruction to use “replacement materials to develop other … carving skills.” Mammoth ivory is considered one of the best alternatives, as it has a similar texture to modern elephant ivory. The international trade in mammoth ivory is also unregulated, presenting desirable business potential. 

After the elephant ivory ban was implemented, mammoth ivory became a key substitute. Carvers and vendors began using mammoth ivory to mass produce smaller jewellery and chopsticks, as well as traditional artistic pieces. This commercial-scale production suggests a continued demand for carved ivory products in China.

mammoth ivory figures for sale
Image 1 (left): Mammoth ivory figurine for sale, priced
at RMB 59,999 (USD 8,462)
Image 2 (right): Mammoth ivory figurine for sale, priced
at RMB 188,888 (USD 26,642)

Considerations for further research

The volume of mammoth ivory advertisements documented during our research indicates the potential for huge demand for this material as worked ivory. In 2019 Israel and Kenya submitted a proposal to CITES to list the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) in Appendix II, to regulate trade and prevent potential laundering of elephant ivory. The vote, however, was deferred until November 2022. The Wildlife Justice Commission therefore urges CITES to consider the findings of this report and the potential scale of the mammoth ivory trade in any future research. Any pending research should also consider possible threats from organised crime.

Support from Peace Parks Foundation

We are incredibly grateful for the generous support provided by Peace Parks Foundation for this research. Since our start in 2015, the Peace Parks Foundation has been a longstanding partner in the  fight against wildlife crime.

“Wildlife crime poses a serious threat to the vast areas of African wilderness that Peace Parks Foundation works to protect, not only destroying biodiversity, but also diminishing livelihoods and destabilising the sustainability of these protected areas. We are committed to developing well-considered methods through which to address issues at various critical points along this so-called ‘crime supply chain’.

As a co-founder of the Wildlife Justice Commission, we are therefore pleased to offer continued support to their invaluable research that informs effective strategies to combat the illegal trade of environmental products, thereby helping to secure those natural resources required to sustain life on earth.”

Werner Myburgh, Chief Executive Officer, Peace Parks Foundation

This report is the second of a two-part series that the Wildlife Justice Commission is publishing into the use of alternative ivory-like products as a substitute for elephant ivory. The first report, Giant clam shells, ivory, and organised crime: Analysis of a potential new nexus, examines the rapid rise of the illegal trade in giant clam shells since 2019 and was released on 6 October 2021.

Read the report here: