The Ivory Trade Is Out of Control, and China Needs to Do More to Stop It

Around 100 African elephants are being slaughtered daily just so people can carve ridiculous ornaments from their tusks

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Lam Yik Fei / Getty Images

Ivory tusks seized by Hong Kong customs officials are displayed during a press conference in Hong Kong on Aug. 7, 2013

Ride the subway in a Chinese metropolis like Beijing or Shanghai and chances are you’ll come across an ad depicting mutilated Chinese characters.

Xiang, the first character, means elephant, except that lacking some strokes, it is as if the animal is missing the tusks. The second and third characters stand for tiger and bear — but the missing strokes make them seem to be losing bones and gall bladder. The fourth and last character, ren, or human, is cut in half.

The ad is intended to stifle demand for the body parts of these wild animals, which in China are commonly thought to possess naturopathic benefits (or, in the case of ivory, ornamental ones). The market has soared on the back of the country’s growing wealth, and that has been a disaster for the most sought-after animals.

This year has been particularly dark, especially for ivory, the trade in which has been banned since 1989 by an international treaty. In Africa, around 100 elephants are being killed every day, by poisoning, machine guns or rocket-propelled grenade launchers fired from the ground or helicopters. Such poaching is feeding terrorist groups like al-Shabab, who conducted the deadly assault on the Westgate mall in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, in late September.

In Hong Kong, one of the trade’s main transit points, seizures of ivory have climbed alarmingly high, from 2,900 kg for the whole of 2010 to 7,200 kg seized from the start of 2013 to mid-October. This grim haul so far this year amounts to 3,349 tusks respectively, or the equivalent of almost 1,675 dead elephants.

Part of the problem is that many Chinese are unaware that killing is involved. “The Chinese word for ivory, xiangya, literally means elephant’s teeth,” says Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia regional director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). “It has led to a very deep and wide misconception that ivory can be harvested without killing elephants.”

(MORE: TIME Explains: The Link Between Wildlife Trafficking and Terrorism)

In a 2007 survey, the IFAW discovered that 70% of Chinese polled did not know that ivory came from dead elephants. This led to the organization’s first ad campaign — a simple poster explaining the actual origins of ivory. A campaign evaluation earlier this year found that the ad, promoted by the world’s largest outdoor advertising company JC Decaux, had been seen by 75% by China’s urban population, and heavily impacted their view on ivory. Among people classified as “high risk” — that is, those likeliest to buy ivory — the proportion who would actually do so after seeing the ad was almost slashed by half.

The IFAW isn’t the only organization trying to raise awareness in China. In one WildAid ad, broadcast in the seatback video sets of Shanghai and Beijing taxis, basketball star Yao Ming blocks bullets fired at elephants.

Tom Milliken, elephant-and-rhino program coordinator at the wildlife-monitoring organization Traffic, says that changing people’s views about ivory is possible. He took an active part in raising awareness of the consequences of the ivory trade in Japan in the 1980s.

“Japan was the largest consumer of ivory in the world, it was the China of its day,” Milliken says. “Thanks to campaigns and celebrities taking a stance, there was a major transformation, and Japan today barely accounts for 1% of its heyday market.”

(MORE: Blood Ivory: Hong Kong Fights a Losing Battle Against Smugglers)

Some of that market is legal — and that is itself a problem. China has licensed 37 carving factories and 136 retail shops to deal in preprohibition ivory, or ivory sold to the government in a one-off deal in 2008 by the same authority that set up the 1989 ban, the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES.

Launched as a way to diminish the demand for illegal ivory, that sale of 50 tons of ivory from African stockpiles has been criticized for having the exact opposite effect. One reason is that it has confused the Chinese over the illegality of ivory consumption. Another is that it has made the task of distinguishing legal ivory from illegal almost impossible. Others say that the Chinese government’s decision to ration the release of legal ivory over several years, and sell it at vastly increased prices, has simply sustained demand for the illegal kind.

“According to one factory that I spoke to, the legal releases only last for one month,” says Gabriel at IFAW. “The other months, they have to use illegal ivory.”

(MORE: At CGI, a Commitment to Stop the Bloody Slaughter of African Elephants

Colman O’Criodain, policy analyst in international wildlife trade at WWF, says, “Messages such as ‘Don’t buy it because it’s illegal’ or ‘Don’t buy it because you are killing elephants’ don’t necessarily work with hard-core consumers, who see these messages as increasing the cachet of the product.”

Many of these type of consumers have moved onto the Internet, where the IFAW has been working with the government and popular Internet forums and marketplaces such as Baidu and Alibaba to screen for keywords such as ivory or tusks. But as soon as one word is banned, a synonym pops up, such as “blood tooth” or “African white plastic.”

“Sometimes we feel that what we’re doing is just a drop in the bucket,” says Gilbert.

Over the past few years, Chinese authorities have beefed up both customs and law enforcement to tackle the illegal trade. Earlier this year, a licensed ivory trader was sentenced to 15 years in prison for smuggling several tons of ivory from eastern Africa. Recent purges of big-spending corrupt officials also provide a hope of reducing the demand for ivory. Milliken at Traffic would like to see China taking a more active role in the African continent too, where Chinese nationals to a large extent are directing the trafficking.

“When Chinese individuals are arrested in Africa, and it happens all the time nowadays, they suddenly speak no English or local languages. Their computers are confiscated, but because the data is in Chinese, there is little scope for intelligence. If Chinese law enforcement would work with their counterparts in Africa, a vast amount of information could be gleaned.”

Never mind the stroke for tooth. If the Chinese authorities don’t act fast, we could be heading toward a future when we won’t be needing the other strokes in the character xiang either.

117 comments
CarolineMason
CarolineMason

Limhuang, China does not fund all conservation in Africa, this is simply NOT TRUE. And the world DOES NOT respect China for 'making of all products .....'. I am afraid you are very mistaken, you been led to believe untruths. Elephants and rhino are being killed, very often for the Chinese market. Tusks don't fall out, the elephant is killed to obtain these tusks and always in the most horrible and cruel way. Rhino horn does grow back, but only if the rhino has a face left and most rhino do not after the poacher has hacked it off.

It may not be the Chinese doing the killing, but it is very often the Chinese doing the ordering and the smuggling and the trading. Other nations are involved, but most are SE Asian countries. If someone ordered the slaughter of the Panda in China's forests, then attempted to smuggled the body parts out of the country, the Chinese would  be outraged and if found, the people involved would receive the death penalty. We are asking you and others to think about this senseless killing and work to stop this slaughter. Please don't try to excuse it, there is NO EXCUSE for killing animals. Please educate yourself about the subject, because your post clearly indicates are sadly mistaken. You have obviously read TIME magazine, please read other publications on this issue -NOWHERE, in any well researched article will you see the claims you are making. Try National Geographic, try The Independent (UK) and find out for yourself. The plain fact is that the world is becoming sick and tired and very annoyed with those in SE Asia who are ordering, smuggling and trading in the world's wildlife. The world DOES NOT RESPECT those who kill and consume another country’s natural heritage. Africa's wildlife is Africa's, it is NOT China's. DO NOT TAKE THAT WHICH IS NOT YOURS TO TAKE.

limhuang
limhuang

Chinese funds all the conservations in Africa and until now. World respects China for the making of all products that is why China is the riches country of the world.

scnelson
scnelson

Go to www.Wildaid.org and click the Donate button.  Then donate if you really want to help stop this.  There are many other non profits that are working on this, but they need help and it takes all of us to make a difference, not just some of us.  I just donated to a new NGO from Seattle called espfund.org.  They are working in Kenya.   Also elephantleague.org is a great one, and IAPF.org is great too.

kbsbz
kbsbz

The native Greek word for ivory is 'elephantodonto', which also means elephant tooth. So what a lame excuse and/or justification "xiang" is.

RettDavis
RettDavis

Funny how the organizations that are doing the most to prevent this poaching are organizations supported monetarily from the 'hunting community' ----> You may dislike hunting, but at the very worst it is a necessary evil.

timedragon69
timedragon69

I think there needs to be a global team of people who execute humans who kill for fun and sport. While recruiting people who just do it for money and survival. 

darkforest
darkforest

Hypocrites much?

We kill deers and other wild life for FUN !!!

This barbaric act is so ubiquitous that people think I'm nuts.


Barry Smith
Barry Smith

Hey. Don't make me come over there. close it.

Ernestina Lemmo
Ernestina Lemmo

the chinese are not only wipening out the elephants but almost every other animal of land and water.. all the governments of the world have close their eyes and ears for many but many years, they let it go just because of the money that comes from them...the poachers don't care...how do we stop this ??? I just can't take listening to all the poor sharks that die because the asians needed it for their "shark fin soup".and so on and so on....WE ALL NEED TO DO SOMETHING, WE NEED TO STOP BUYING THEIR STUFF, not that they would care...because they don't

Austin Myles Lee
Austin Myles Lee

No need to poach these elephants for their tusks. We have cloning technology to more than provide the Chinese with what they need. Salespeople get to the demanders right away, we could be missing a very lucrative piece of marketing, while saving precious lives of elephants in nature...

Kathryn Baker
Kathryn Baker

The Asians are idiots with their fetishes for animal parts, I can't stand them.

Antonio Sánchez
Antonio Sánchez

Es posible que en un futuro los fetiches sean de humanos, nos lo merecemos.

Alan Isiguzo
Alan Isiguzo

Reduce the Demand and that should solve the problem...NO DEMAND NO SUPPY...!!!

Vijay Banga
Vijay Banga

China has other troubles to handle it is for Elephant populated countries to take control

Josh Carr
Josh Carr

I believe that but I don't believe drugs fund terrorism.

Fernando Ramirez
Fernando Ramirez

Such an ancient "culture",what a disappointment,chame on you China.

Scott Smith
Scott Smith

Ivory is a sad story, money for the poacher, money for the trader and nothing but work for the artisan.

DanielStiles
DanielStiles

There is a great deal of misunderstanding about the ivory issue. I have investigated ivory markets in many African and Asian countries (including China), and in Europe and the USA, so have a fair understanding of the problem. Although I don’t like the idea of trading animal products, if legal trade will save their lives I have no choice but to advocate it, even though it is very unpopular. Not to would be irresponsible. To save elephants from poaching for ivory it is urgent that legal ivory replace poached ivory in places like China, but at the same time demand must be reduced through commendable campaigns that IFAW and others are carrying out.

Page Bridges
Page Bridges

I literally felt my heart rip as I read this.....

1522958305
1522958305

I am a Chinese,and I don't like other people review how Chinese deal with ourselves business.thank you!

Bjorn Viberg
Bjorn Viberg

This is beyond evil. Many Asians have a strange view of how to treat animals.

CarolineMason
CarolineMason

@limhuang

Limhuang, China does not fund all conservation in Africa, this is simply NOT TRUE. And the world DOES NOT respect China for 'making of all products .....'. I am afraid you are very mistaken or have been led to believe untruths. Elephants and rhino are being killed, very often for the Chinese market. Tusks don't fall out, the elephant is killed to obtain these tusks and always in the most horrible and cruel way. Rhino horn does grow back, but only if the rhino has a face left and most do not after the poacher has hacked it off.

It may not be the Chinese doing the killing, but it is very often the Chinese doing the ordering and the smuggling. Other nations are involved, but most are SE Asian countries. If someone ordered the slaughtering of the Panda in China's forests, then attempted to smuggled the body parts out of the country, the Chinese would  be outraged and if found, the people involved would receive the death penalty. We are asking you and others to think about what is happening and work to stop this slaughter. Please don't try to excuse it, there is NO EXCUSE for killing animals. Please educate yourself about the subject, because you are sadly mistaken. You are reading TIME magazine, please read other publications on this issue -NOWHERE, in any well researched article will you see the claims you are making. Try National Geographic, try The Independent (UK) and find out for yourself. The plain fact is that the world is becoming sick and tired and very annoyed with those in SE Asia who are ordering, smuggling and trading in the world's wildlife. The world DOES NOT RESPECT those who kill and consume another country’s natural heritage. Africa's wildlife is Africa's, it is NOT China's. DO NOT TAKE THAT WHICH IS NOT YOURS TO TAKE.

MargoFandango
MargoFandango

@limhuang Most of the world is in contempt of China.  Their Human Rights and Animal Welfare issues are NOTORIOUS.  You may be rich now, by using your labour force on very cheap wages who make shoddy goods that fall apart.  The world cannot compete with you, no, our workers are used to better conditions, we aren't governed by a Communist State that keeps us in the dark about Workers Rights.  A communist state who hypocritically has Billionaire leaders coining the money in.  THE CHINESE IVORY TRADE IS CONDEMNING THE ELEPHANTS TO EXTINCTION.  

DonaldBates
DonaldBates

@darkforest 1) Population control. This is why we have hunting season. Controls deer population without killing off the species.

2) Just about all hunters have the deer meat processed. Only a psycho goes out, kills the deer, and leaves it. Not like early Americans that would shoot the buffalo from the train, just to do it.

ConnorBrady
ConnorBrady

@darkforest you realize that deer populations are out of control?  as in, there are around 30 million in the United States alone?  Elephants cannot say nearly the same.

Besides, hunting is a part of the basic human psyche- we had to hunt for thousands of years in order to survive before it suddenly became "barbaric".  It only becomes barbaric when we threaten the livelihood of an entire species.  

Ivanvi
Ivanvi

@Mary Thawley I cannot agree with you any more!

KellyDuong
KellyDuong

@Kathryn Baker Really? I had no idea I even had that fetish.

CarolineMason
CarolineMason

@DanielStileslegal ivory will not replace poached ivory - this in nonsense. There is both poached and legal ivory in the same market and poached is cheaper! Trade must not be opened, same with rhino horn. Change attitudes and get more people from consumer countries - preferably the younger generation - to witness a wild elephant or rhino and any other animal to see their beauty. And political will, muscle and money to stop the trade. Trade is not the answer. And what next? What of the pangolin, the bee-eaters, the lions, tigers, bears,  the abalone and everything else China and SE Asia wants to consume? There will be no end to the devastation.


opexwells
opexwells

@1522958305  this is all i can say about you chinese, you chino are the barbaric and very inferior people in the world. 

TamaraBirdsall
TamaraBirdsall

@1522958305  You have to deal with the world. You're a super power. That does not give you the right to decimate entire species.  Rhinos, tigers, lions, elephants are all being slaughtered to the point to extinction. Your religious and cultural practices are not relevant. These keystone species have no time left. Should we go on to talk about sharks and dogs and cats?



jjone
jjone

With more people across the globe joining the bandwagon to achieve progess for the greater good of humanity, the problem is, Chinese are going backward. CHINA IS THE NATION THAT EATS AND CONSUME YOURSELF TO DEATH WHILE TAKING THE REST OF US ALONG WITH YOU ON YOUR RECKLESS PATH TO DIMISE DUE TO YOUR FAILURE IN UNDERSTANDING ECOLOGY! You can bet that the rest of the human race outside of China will not standby for you uneducated people to destroy earth's human race! So you see, when we criticize you Chinese, we're only trying to wake you up from your destructive actions leading to your demise and the demise of the rest of us here on earth.

Ivanvi
Ivanvi

@Carl Maynard Toralba I am very sorry to hear what you say!

darkforest
darkforest

@ConnorBrady @darkforest It's no more out of control than the people encroaching on their land, or our out of control uproar for killings of dogs/cats, which are similarly out of control.

In contemporary settings, killing a majestic life not for food but for sport should really be left for the coyotes.


obsi
obsi

@opexwells @1522958305 That guy is an obvious troll pretending to be Chinese and getting a reaction out of you. However, your reply just shows how much of an ahole racist you are. Hypocrites like you have no right to call other people (especially a whole race) barbaric and inferior, since you yourself are the epitome of what you're describing. Get a life.

BigRanger
BigRanger

@darkforest So you are saying that every life is equally valuable, and killing a deer, regardless of their population size, is exactly the same as slaughtering an endangered species for no other reason than to harvest their teeth? Slicing fins off of sharks and dumping them is the same as euthanizing stray cats? Killing black rhinos for their horns is the same as culling seal populations to ensure they do not grow out of control? No. Controlled hunting and fishing of species with dangerously high populations is NOT the same as poaching endangered species so you can have a fancier comb, or "traditional" rhino-horn viagra. Wake up.

EvanThomasWise
EvanThomasWise

@darkforest @ConnorBrady Coyotes are hunter, but also scavengers. Taking a "protect every living thing ever" approach will not solve what you think to be a problem. Talk to any DNR officer and they'll agree that sports hunting is needed and it is very well regulated in order to keep the populations of deer at a normal level. Once they get too high of level, they start having to compete for food and land, and then moving. When they move, they run into highways, and now you are risking human life, too. It's a bigger problem than jusk "killing is bad :["