Battle for the Elephants (Ep. 3): The China Ivory Market

A curious juvenile elephant comes to inspect our camera crew / J.J. Kelley for National Geographic Television
A curious juvenile elephant comes to inspect our camera crew / J.J. Kelley for National Geographic Television

Our investigation is revealing insights into why elephant numbers are falling to lower levels than ever recorded. An international ban on trading ivory has been in place since 1989. Since then, the body that governs the trade, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), has allowed two large auctions of stockpiled ivory.

According to Bryan Christy, these two sales gave cover to ivory smugglers in China, and the underground market exploded. According to CITES, 25,000 elephants were killed in Africa last year, though other observers say it could be many more. In Tanzania alone, poachers kill 30 elephants a day. The International Fund for Animal Welfare estimates that 84 percent of the ivory sold in China is illegal.

Since the opening up of the Chinese market and the growth of its economy, ivory, once a precious material available only to the ruling elite, has become increasingly available to the growing Chinese middle class.

A luxury goods store in Beijing allowed our cameras into their showroom where Christy explains how those auctions complicate what’s for sale legally and what’s not.


Watch “Battle for the Elephants” on PBS

Bryan Christy visits a high end retailer in Hong Kong to investigate the legal ivory market.
Bryan Christy visits a high end retailer in Hong Kong to investigate the legal ivory market / John Heminway for National Geographic Television



J.J. Kelley is an Emmy nominated filmmaker and adventurer focusing on issues of conservation and wildlife crime. A producer and director of photography at National Geographic, Kelley’s work has appeared on The National Geographic Channel, NOVA, The New York Times, Outside Television and PBS. He is also the co-creator of the adventure production company, Dudes on Media. In addition to winning over 40 film festival awards including, Paddler Magazine called his Emmy nominated second film, "Paddle to Seattle" “the best feature film about paddling produced in the past decade.” Kelley is an Appalachian Trail Thru-hiker, biked across Alaska, kayaked from Alaska to Seattle, and traveled the length of The River Ganges. He regularly stops in the studios as a guest on National Geographic Weekend and recently starred in a television commercial for Nature Valley.
  • Zafar

    Lets trade on Panda bones…. we will see how does China react knowing how sensitive they are about Panda…
    China is a rouge country, not sure why we are dealing with it in WTO inspite of devaluing currency last 20 yrs killing jobs for virtually every country

  • Save Queenie Save Elephants

    I hope this documentary covers the China Ivory Carvers Asso. which says it has “the right to carve.” The carvers are the smallest and easiest chain in the link to stop IF the Chinese gov’t had the will to shut down the workshops. They stopped foot binding overnight, they can do the same with the carvers (as well as raid these retailer). No carving = nothing to sell = nothing to buy = no demand = no poaching.

  • Elaine Wayman

    Wake up china..you’ve got more than enough money coming into your country..! you DO NOT Need ivory money! if you want western countries and Africa to be on your side STOP the wicked disgusting poaching thats going on!..please!

  • Joanne

    Zafar! GOOD POINT on the Pandas!
    STOP BUYING IVORY = NO SALES = END OF POACHING. People need to wake up and contemplate the pain and torture of animals hunted for “health” reasons! No one is immortal. Just live right = live long. No “magical” potion is the answer!

  • Laura Savill

    I agree with the above but we also need to educate more people in the west to what is happening – they could stop buying goods from China – once ellies and rhinos are gone they are goon forever. Man is kiiling the precious world we are all greedy in our own way – wake up humans eventually you will die out!

  • Meriel

    Good points Zafar and Laura. Marketing Pandas would definitely get China’s attention. But, as Laura mentioned, more education is needed in the West. This would definitely apply more pressure to China as well as exposing their tactics and demands. Perhaps more fines are needed for carvers? Don’t they understand if there are no elephants left–there is NO ivory! I’l be watching the PBS this evening.

  • Christopher Banigan

    French musician Henri Texler wrote a moving tune called ‘Don’t Buy Ivory, Anymore”, a lament on which to meditate the fate of elephants.

  • Muzzafar Khan

    Are the Chinese listening to all these voices from different parts of the world? They better do if they expect to play a greater role in global commerce with all they produce and export to all parts of the world including Africa.They should stop illicit ivory trade.Killing our magnificent and innocent Elephants is not like killing protesting pro-democracy demonstrators in Tianamin square! Elephants do not speak but people of the world are now speaking for them.

  • Sani

    Watched this episode last night and was DEEPLY saddened and disturbed!! Bryan Christy’s courage and persistence is commendable, he risked his own life to uncover the truth, truly amazing that there are people like that among us and fighting for the good cause.
    How can we save these poor animals from being slaughtered for someone’s yet another million dollar sculpture??
    Animals alive are worth much more than any money in the world can pay. They are magnificent creatures and we should honor them, not endanger them!!
    How can we EACH help the elephants???

  • Chris Whiteman

    The Chinese have too much money. We have to stop USA & European companies manufacturing in China. Boycott Chinese goods. Spend your money going to see the Elephants & Rhinos. Show support.

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