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.”

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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.”

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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.