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The Ivory Trade: Thinking Like a Businessman to Stop the Business

Most experts believe China is the world’s leading consumer of ivory products, and, according to a recent survey conducted to support our upcoming National Geographic Special, Battle for the Elephants, China’s demand for ivory products is at an all-time high. What’s the impact of that high demand? As we put together the treatment for the...

Most experts believe China is the world’s leading consumer of ivory products, and, according to a recent survey conducted to support our upcoming National Geographic Special, Battle for the Elephants, China’s demand for ivory products is at an all-time high.

What’s the impact of that high demand? As we put together the treatment for the film, which airs in the U.S. Wednesday, February 27th on PBS, we were stunned to find that no one had ever performed a comprehensive market analysis of the ivory trade in China. Why was ivory so popular there? Who was buying it, how much were they buying, and for what reasons?

Along with the director of our film, John Heminway, and our producers, Katie Carpenter, and JJ Kelley, we began thinking about ivory as a commodity, like any other luxury product. We weren’t being callous, just practical. If we could figure out the contours of the demand for ivory, maybe we could use that knowledge to help reduce the demand.

So in a bid to stop the killing, we started thinking like entrepreneurs intent on making a killing in the ivory trade. Who would our customers be? Why would they buy our product? What types of ivory products would appeal to buyers? What impediments to market would there be for our product? What help or hindrance might we expect from the government?

With these basic questions in hand, we sought out a market analysis firm based in China to do the work. We hired Ifop Asia, a company with offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong that has a long track record of market surveys focused on luxury goods.

Assessing the Market

Over several weeks, Ifop, in consultation with our team, devised a survey. To increase the likelihood of accurate responses, respondents answered a variety of questions about luxury goods, including gold and jade. They weren’t told that the objective was to analyze the market in ivory goods.

The survey polled consumers in nine of China’s largest cities. The sample group of 600 targeted members of the Chinese middle and upper middle class, as defined by those with an annual income of RMB 200,000 (U.S. $32,000) and above. The average respondent’s mean income was RMB 520,917 (U.S. $84,000). Ages ranged from 18-55, with a mean age of 35. Gender break down was 49 percent male, and 51 percent female.

The findings helped round out the research in our film and provided a lot more data about the trade that we couldn’t include. Reading the key findings is a sobering experience.

According to the survey, 84 percent of Chinese middle and upper-middle class consumers surveyed plan to buy ivory goods in the future. That represents a very large number and a very grim future for elephants.

The study found that video and billboard advertisements in China that show how poaching is threatening Africa’s elephant population largely fail to deter consumers.

(More than 50 percent of respondents have seen this type of messaging in videos or billboards.)

What Might Deter More Buying?

Nearly 60 percent of respondents believe that making ivory “illegal to purchase under any circumstances” or “the strong recommendation of a government leader” would be the most effective way to stop ivory trading.

Extensive research and reporting by investigative journalist Bryan Christy, who is featured in our film and who wrote the National Geographic October cover story, Blood Ivory: Ivory Worship, revealed that Chinese desire for ivory is at least partly rooted in the country’s cultural and spiritual heritage.

That seems to be supported by other findings. For example, ivory ownership is high: Eight out of ten households surveyed owned at least one ivory product, with 2.7 pieces on average per household. While some ivory products were received as a gift, the incidence of purchasing ivory is high as well: 68 percent of respondents have purchased at least one ivory product in the past.

The survey was revealing about the appeal of ivory. Around one-half describe an ivory product as a “rarity,” 35 percent call it a “luxury,” and 29 percent think it confers “status.” Fourteen percent associate ivory with “wisdom,” while 87 percent associate purchasing ivory products with a feeling of  “prestige.”

Currently in China, some ivory can be legally traded, apparently adding to confusion in the market as to what is or is not legal. So, for example, less than one-fifth of respondents associate owning such an item with animal cruelty, and only one-tenth feel uncomfortable about its possession.

That could be because some ivory for sale comes from the long extinct mammoth, while other ivory is from stockpiles sold legally to China in a 2008 auction that was allowed by CITES, the international trade convention charged with managing the 1989 international trade ban.

Still, a study by the International Fund for Animal Welfare found that an estimated four-fifths of ivory items sold in China are believed to have been made of smuggled tusks.

A Glimmer of Hope

For the optimists among us, the survey has a small bright spot: 16 percent of respondents say they will not buy ivory.

Our hope is that by providing these data to the wider world, we might grow that 16 percent. Collaborating with the Chinese—people and government—to stem the tide is the only way forward.

And lest we think our hands in the West are clean, the U.S. and Western Europe are still important ivory demand countries. As our film makes clear, in the late 19th and early 20th century, U.S. demand for ivory, mostly for piano keyboards, brushes, combs, and pool balls dropped African elephant populations by the millions.

The difference in 2013 is that today there simply aren’t that many African elephants left.

The China survey is based on respondents’ answers, but if it’s fair to extrapolate, and if 84 percent of the Chinese middle and upper-middle classes plan to buy even the smallest of trinkets, that’s more than two million items.

Unless demand is dramatically reduced, that may spell the end of the wild elephant.

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Meet the Author

John Bredar
JOHN BREDAR, filmmaker and author, is the Senior Executive Producer for the National Geographic SPECIALS. He produced his first film for National Geographic Television in 1989. Since then, he has produced 25 additional films exploring topics ranging from cockroaches and black widow spiders to sumo wrestlers and combat cameramen. His first book, The President’s Photographer was published in November of 2010. Companion to the National Geographic Special by the same title, it follows the life of President Obama’s photographer while revealing the history of previous chief White House photographers going back to JFK. Bredar created the Inside Series at National Geographic, starting with Inside the White House, the highest rated program on PBS in the 1996-97 season. In the years following he produced several other similar films including Inside the Vatican, Inside NFL Films, Inside the Pentagon and Arlington: Field of Honor for which he received the best director Emmy Award in 2006. In 2009, he received the George Foster Peabody award as executive producer for Ape Genius, a NOVA-National Geographic Special about primate intelligence. That same year, he co-wrote and executive produced the PBS Special, Illicit: The Dark Trade, based on the best-selling book, Illicit, by Moises Naim. The film was nominated for the Best Investigative Documentary Emmy award. He has been nominated for seven Emmy awards, winning the Best History Emmy for Combat Cameramen of World War II in 1998, and another as Executive Producer and writer for Predators at War in 2006. In 2006, he co-wrote and Executive Produced the Gospel of Judas, one of the highest rated programs in National Geographic Channel history.