China currently has the largest market for elephant ivory of any country and is the most important destination for both legal and illegal ivory products¹. However, the situation is starting to change for the better due to multiple recent developments. For example, in 2016, the Chinese government committed to phasing out its legal ivory trade. Under this policy China will gradually shut down its licensed ivory factories and will develop programs to assist ivory carvers in finding other work². All processing and sale of ivory within the country will stop by the end of 2017 ³. Additional factors leading to the decline are the outreach initiatives started by wildlife conservation groups, such as the Elephant Listening Project, which are intended to engage and educate the Chinese public and thereby reduce demand for ivory.
China has become the hub of the ivory trade for a variety of reasons. For example, when the United Nations adopted a resolution requiring state parties to preserve intangible cultural heritage the ivory carving trade seized the opportunity to get state support⁴. It was therefore able to promote its products via the media, museums, and exhibitions. Other factors that have contributed to the problem are a recent boom in arts investment, the perception of ivory as a status symbol, its use for religious objects such as Buddhist prayer beads, and its importance in traditional Chinese medicine. Ivory products are also commonly gifted to public officials in corruption schemes⁴.
However, there are signs that the situation is improving. Between 2014 and 2015 the price of elephant tusks in China dropped by almost fifty percent⁵. Studies have also shown that the number of ivory items for sale has decreased in major Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai, and that many shops currently selling ivory items are shifting to other materials such as clam shell⁵. This decline has been attributed to China’s promise to disband its legal ivory trade and to crackdowns on corruption⁵.
Another reason for the Chinese ivory trade’s decline is the effort made by conservation groups in recent years to educate the Chinese public about elephant conservation with the goal of reducing the demand for ivory. The Elephant Listening Project (ELP) has launched multiple initiatives in this vein. For example, an ELP researcher from Shang Hai has developed an app on WeChat, a Chinese social media site, that people can use to learn about African forest elephants. Users are engaged as they control the direction of stories featuring forest elephants. ELP is also in the process of translating the subtitles on its YouTube videos into mandarin.
Other organizations have undertaken similar efforts. WildAid, an environmental organization based in San Francisco, has debuted Public Service Announcements (PSAs) on Chinese television, featuring celebrities such as Yao Ming and Li Bingbing⁶. These efforts have proven to be successful as research⁵ shows that between 2012 and 2014 the number of Chinese citizens who considered elephant poaching to be a problem and who were aware that much of the ivory sold in the country comes from poached elephants greatly increased. In addition, over 90% of the people who viewed the PSAs said they would not buy ivory in the future⁶.
While China’s ivory trade is currently fueling much of the demand for ivory products and is a significant force behind the outbreak of elephant poaching, the situation seems to be getting better as the Chinese public becomes more informed about elephant conservation and as the Chinese government takes steps to dissolve the country’s legal ivory trade. As people become more aware of the damage caused by the ivory trade it will hopefully continue to decline and the incentives for poaching will gradually dissipate.
¹Underwood, Fiona M., Robert W. Burn, and Tom Milliken. “Dissecting the illegal ivory trade: an analysis of ivory seizures data.” PloS one 8, no. 10 (2013): e76539.
²Gettleman EWAJ (2016) China Bans Its Ivory Trade, Moving Against Elephant Poaching. In: The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/30/world/asia/china-ivory-ban-elephants.html. Accessed 17 Oct 2017
³Wildlife Conservation Society. “China Announcement of Domestic Ivory Ban in 2017 — English Translation.” News release, January 3, 2017. Wcs.org. Accessed November 7, 2017. https://newsroom.wcs.org/News-Releases/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/9578/China-Announcement-of-Domestic-Ivory-Ban-in-2017--English-Translation.aspx.
⁴Gao, Yufang, and Susan G. Clark. “Elephant ivory trade in China: Trends and drivers.” Biological conservation 180 (2014): 23–30.
⁵Vigne, Lucy, and Esmond, Martin. Decline in The Legal Ivory Trade in China in Anticipation of a Ban. Publication. Nairobi , Kenya: Save The Elephants, 2017.
⁶Ivory Demand in China: 2012–2014. Report. February 6, 2014. Accessed October 14, 2017. http://wildaid.org/sites/default/files/resources/Print_Ivory%20Report_ Final_v3.pdf.
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Conserving the tropical forests of Africa through acoustic monitoring, sound science, and education, focusing on forest elephants