Changing Planet

A Young Chinese Conservationist Discusses His Country’s Role in the Ivory Trade

Photograph by Sarah Gordon/Yale University
Photograph by Sarah Gordon/Yale University

Gao Yufang, 26, is a Chinese researcher and conservationist who graduated last month with a masters from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

At Yale, Gao focused his studies on the ivory trade, with emphasis on the varied, sometimes conflicting understanding about the Chinese role in it. This, he believes, creates obstacles to stopping the slaughter of African elephants.

During the past two years Gao has conducted research in Kenya, Botswana, Tanzania, Hong Kong, and mainland China and analyzed nearly 3,000 Chinese news articles, as well as a large volume of statistical data on the Chinese ivory market.

Last December, at the invitation of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Botswana government, he spoke as a youth ambassador at the African Elephant Summit in Botswana.

This month, Gao will be returning to China and hosting two African conservationists—Resson Kantai and Christopher Kiarie, also in their 20s—on a tour of China’s ivory markets.

Russo: Tell me about your forthcoming trip to China.

Gao: The three of us are going to Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Xiamen, Quanzhou, Fuzhou, and Shanghai. These are the main ivory trading centers in China. We’re going to visit these cities and talk to the general public, the Chinese media, and Chinese conservation groups about elephant conservation. We hope to create a China-Africa conservation fellowship.

Do you think youth are particularly important in this conversation?

Many people, even in the Chinese conservation community, are not participating in elephant conservation or talking about the ivory trade. Because of the lack of participation from Chinese civil society, there’s lots of misinformation about the Chinese ivory trade. Most of the ivory researchers are not Chinese.

My generation—the youth generation—is the most active group in Chinese society. With this trip, we are trying to create the opportunity for youth to participate, because actually they’re really keen and energetic and enthusiastic about elephant conservation when they learn about it. If we provide them the opportunity, they will take it.

What led you to study the ivory trade while you were at Yale?

When I came to Yale in September 2012, everyone was talking about ivory trade. As a Chinese in the U.S. who understood how the conservation community in China works, I was seeing a great gap in understanding the ivory trade. I felt that people were—and are—talking past each other. So I got curious: What is really going on here? And this curiosity motivated me to take on the ivory trade project.

What did you notice about the way China, the U.S., and Africa “spoke” to each other about the trade and the poaching crisis?

What I found is one of the major obstacles for solving this elephant poaching problem is that each party has a very different view about the motivations and constraints of the other parties.

What are some of the misperceptions from Africa’s perspective about China?

Africa’s perspective is influenced by the West’s perspective. Many African conservationists have never been to China, and what they know about the ivory trade is usually from the news media or Western international conservation organizations.

In this Western narrative, most people believe elephant poaching is caused by Chinese demand for ivory. Also, that China’s economic development has created a large middle class and this middle class buys ivory for social status.

Is this true?

If you say hundreds of millions of Chinese middle class [people] are demanding ivory, this is an exaggeration of the ivory market in China.

The majority of the Chinese never see ivory in daily life. In my research, I estimate that over 99 percent of Chinese never buy ivory, and the potential ivory buyers are less than one percent of the Chinese population.

The problem is that China has a very large population, so even a small percentage can have a great impact. Ivory is a tiny industry in China, and Chinese government officials say they’re worried about the counterproductive impacts of this exaggeration. But it is also true that China does bear an inescapable responsibility in the trade.

You have found that this concept of the “middle class” itself is somewhat misguided. You explain it’s more specific than that, and the primary ivory buyers are the baofahu or tuhao.

Yes, the Western media and conservation organizations talk about the middle class, but it is actually more specific. From a typical Chinese perception, the baofahu and tuhao are the major buyers of ivory. The charactersistics of the baofahu or tuhao are that they are very rich—but also very uneducated—and they want to show off their social status.

This is still not the whole picture, because the ivory market in China is very diverse. Attributing the problem to baofahu underestimates ivory consumption, while attributing the problem to [the] middle class overestimates the ivory demand. The truth is in the middle.

Photograph by Robert Sutcliffe/Elephants Without Borders

Please talk about the ivory markets in China.

There are three types: the white, the black, and the gray.

The white market is the legal ivory market. The black market is the illegal market. The gray market [is] where the legality is uncertain.

So the white market consists of 145 ivory shops and ivory repair outlets and 37 ivory factories. Most of these facilities are located in the eastern part of China, especially Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing. And the number of these legal ivory facilities has increased from 40 in 2004 to 182 in 2014.

Many Western NGOs and media have already talked about the legal market. And some researchers and journalists went to investigate the legal market and found a lot of loopholes and violations of the ivory identification and registration policy.

The black market takes two forms, and the first is the physical market. The other is the online market. In the past few years, the Chinese government has tightened control of the physical black market. So what I found is that many ivory dealers are now shifting their business to online trading.

One of the main forms of online trading is the Baidu Post Bar. Ivory traders will sell the ivory by using some [other] word—they don’t say it’s “ivory” but will say it’s “white plastic,” for example. Every day people visit the bar, and the illegal ivory traders post photos of raw ivory or worked ivory. And they ask potential consumers to contact them and communicate on Wechat, which is the Chinese version of WhatsApp. The illegal dealers will then send the ivory to the buyers.

Is this bar internationally used, or just domestically?

The bar is an Internet platform, so everyone around the world, as long as they can read Chinese, can go to the website. But the trade is within China. Chinese dealers sell the illegal ivory to Chinese buyers. Some dealers have direct connections with middlemen in Africa.

Tell me about the gray market.

The gray market is the live auction market of ivory art works. I feel this is very important. Sometimes, when talking about the auction market in China, many conservationists, especially English-speaking conservationists, confuse this with the online auction. This is a live, off-line market.

Why is this off-line market so important?

This is where the big money is. In the gray market, the current ivory registration and identification system doesn’t distinguish antique ivory from new ivory. But the ivory collectors do distinguish antique and new ivory. And antique ivory is the most expensive.

According to the Chinese ivory control policy, all ivory in China can only be sold in the white market, the legal market. But because the auction market is a very new thing, it is not well regulated.

How does this gray market affect the ivory trade and poaching?

The trade trend of ivory at the off-line market started to increase around 2006, mushroomed after 2009, and then peaked in 2011. After 2011 it suddenly diminished.

Before 2011, the trend of the ivory gray market is significantly correlated to elephant poaching in Africa. The price can be incredibly high in the gray market. The Chinese media, when they talk about the ivory market, usually [mean] the auction market. So those ivory carvings that achieve an incredibly high price bring lots of attention from the media, and this in turn increases the perception that ivory is a good investment. People anticipate that if they buy an ivory carving at this moment, in the future it’s going to make a lot of money.

Another step in my research is to understand the conditions that caused the different trends in the three markets. May I explain this?

Yes, absolutely.

Many conservation groups, animal welfare groups, and the media believe the 2009 CITES one-off sale stimulated ivory demand. This is the perception of many reports. But I’m not satisfied with this. To understand what caused ivory demand in China, we need to understand why Chinese buy ivory. We need to understand the different values of ivory in Chinese perception.

Chinese society has attached many values to ivory. The economic value of carved ivory as a good investment is the first. The second is the social value of ivory. The third is the cultural value of ivory as a traditional art. Ivory carving in 2006 was officially designated as a national intangible cultural heritage. The fourth value is the esthetic value—those who believe ivory is very beautiful, the necklaces and bangles they think are very pretty. The fifth is the religious value, such as ivory statues and guru beads, Buddhist ivory pendants, and statues of Quan Yin. The last is the medical value. Some people believe that if you wear ivory bangles, for example, it’s good for your health.

It’s also important that we understand the social change that promoted some of these values. I identified two trends.

The first was the preservation of traditional culture. In 2002 the Chinese authorities started to recognize the importance of protecting traditional culture, and there were lots of initiatives launched to protect this, and ivory carving is just one. The carvers seized on this opportunity, and ivory carving became an official national intangible cultural heritage in 2006. This increased the cultural value of ivory, and it’s one reason the authorities would like to have the ivory trade.

The second, and most important, trend is the boom of arts investment in China, especially after 2008 and 2009, because around this time the stock market and real estate market didn’t perform as well as expected. So people started to invest in many forms of arts and antiques and collectibles, and this included furniture, paintings, antique books, and ivory.

This art market is related to the gray market, because the auction market is an important channel for liquidation [of] investment[s]. The arts investment boom increased the value of ivory as an investment alternative that has driven ivory demand in China.

But in 2011 the authorities imposed an ivory auction off-line ban. A lot of Chinese news articles talked about this ban, but the English media rarely talk about this. This is important: Because of this ban, the ivory gray market suddenly diminished, and the [price] increase of ivory slowed down.

Some groups in China are now lobbying to drop the ban. The problem is that because it’s poorly regulated, new ivory can enter the market and can be fabricated to look antique.

In your research, did you come to understand whether Chinese buyers of ivory know—or care—that elephants are being killed for the their ivory?

Professional ivory investors know a lot about ivory, and they know a lot about elephant poaching. They distinguish the different types of ivory—they say it’s yellow, white, or blood ivory, and they have different explanations for each kind.

Some of these professional investors openly say that blood ivory is from [a] poached elephant. And the ivory was got when the elephant was still alive. Of all the kinds of ivory, blood ivory is the most expensive. So they know exactly where the ivory comes from.

But the general public, who simply buy ivory because of, say, its esthetic value, I believe they don’t know the ivory came from poached elephants. They simply consider ivory the same as other beautiful jewelry, like jade.

So let me get this straight. From everything you are telling me, Chinese professional investors and art collectors are the most influential group driving the trade in your opinion?


But we must distinguish between collectors and investors. Investors care about money. Collectors also care about cultural value and esthetic value. And the collectors, some of them are really good people. They want ivory from legal source[s]. The collectors can be very law abiding.

Photograph courtesy Gao Yufang
Photograph courtesy Gao Yufang

When you graduated from Yale, you decorated your hat in honor of Mountain Bull, an iconic Kenyan elephant who was recently killed for his ivory.

At Yale we have a tradition of decorating our hats. People know me as “the elephant guy.” So I put an elephant on my head, and at that time Mountain Bull was killed.

I feel I have the responsibility to help elephant conservation in Africa. I’ve received a lot of support from many, many people, and it’s those people, the ones who are motivated by their genuine love for the elephants, that most encourage me.

I realize this problem is very complicated. Many people here in the U.S. care a lot about [the] elephant because of its intrinsic value and because they feel a moral responsibility or they want to protect [it] for the next generation. But Africans may have different concerns—about livelihood and issues about development and well-being. You cannot simply impose your own values and ask them to have the same feeling you do.

So what I’m trying to do is to listen to the different actors, whether U.S. rich people or local African people who are suffering from conflict with elephants and must think about next meals or the Chinese who care about culture. I try to understand all this, and how we can bring people together to find common ground. I really believe ensuring a viable future for elephants is the common interest for the global community.

Christina Russo is a freelance journalist. For nearly 15 years, she has worked as a producer for a number of public radio programs, including NPR/WBUR’s "On Point" with Tom Ashbrook. Christina also freelances for Yale Environment 360, where her written work focuses mainly on wildlife conservation issues. She is the co-producer, with WBUR, of the nationally syndicated documentary on American zoos, From Cages to Conservation. She has written numerous articles about animals, including a story about caring for donkeys in Ethiopia; a veterinarian saving horses in Sonoma County, CA; an elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand; and the work of pre-eminent whale biologist Roger Payne for her hometown newspaper, The Gloucester Daily Times.
  • love for the wild

    i dont agree with the above as an ordinary person and as of my love for the wildlife the problem also prevailing is the diplomatic immunity that those in authority are being sheilded by.
    i watch a film about poaching and it led to someone in an embassy being connected.

  • Gloria geter

    Thank you for your commitment to helping people understand the underlying causes for ivory trade in different countries. Hopefully it will help to deter the killing of elephants for their tusks. These majestic animals need to be preserved for all the world. It’s also cruel !!

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Very interesting and enlightening…

  • Steffi Hiller

    What do you think of all the mammot carvings which are sold nowadays for example in Hong Kong. All of a sudden there is surprinsingly no more ivory seen in the shops. Is this legal re-labelling?

  • Phyllis Stuart

    Very insightful. I know that having spent time with local African conservationists they don’t feel the Westerners are imposing our values on them. Africans want us to save the elephant from extinction. The Chinese are in Kenya building roads and the Kenyans resent them poaching their elephants. In fact, 90 percent of the ivory found at airports is in the hands of Chinese nationals smuggling it back home. I share your passion to save the elephants, and am making a film ELEPHANT DAZE to that end. But Africans don’t have to go to China to understand that the Asian (Chinese) demand is fueling international terrorism, and elephant poaching. It seems the last people to know (and accept) the facts may be the Chinese.

  • Georja Umano

    The corruption in the government agencies must also be considered as the ivory moves throught local and international connections, as well as the terrorist militias that are killing and profiting

  • Wido

    Education of Chinese about wildlife is one thing, this is where television can do a lot.
    Corruption of nations like in Asia and South America goes from top (government) to the lowest classes as it is part of their culture.
    We see what money does and why should the Chinese not have the right for Ivory as the Western world made that the elephant almost extinct.
    Same like the man who had every day another girl and now being old telling boys/men that it is wrong to do so.
    For the Chinese difficult to accept and a growing threat for the elephant and Rhino.

  • Sone Chris

    This is very interesting especially the link between poaching and trade in China. Presently, one of the main ivory stop-points is China and that is why they are being considered to be among the most important pushers of ivory trafficking.

    Is it possible to contact Gao Yufang directly?
    I am working on a project that is combating trade in elephant ivory and other animal products and live species

  • Rita

    Thank you for your commitment and help … the elephant needs a voice… thank you for been their voice and handling the issue in a smart way.\

  • Mare

    I love the idea of the common ground approach and Gao’s research is solid “Corruption” in government, is a huge factor though, that I think needs to be considered in addressing this fight. People of power & wealth or a combination are generally people of a certain character that do not care about a bequest value of anything other than their money & position, & will do what it takes to secure it. These people exist in every country and government and conservation fights an uphill battle each day to combat corruption. Perhaps this is a fourth prong to the problem? Can government officers of power come to a common ground on the level of art dealers & village farmers who’s crops get raided & livelihoods destroyed for an entire year or more, to illegal dealers right here in NYC who make their livelihoods selling black market products? I hope we all can see the value is the preservation of the life of the elephant.

  • Soumya Naidu

    Mr.Gao, I appreciate you trying to bridge the cultural gap between Africa, the west and China. It is your responsibility and the responsibility of other western educated Chinese youth to end this madness. How are we supposed to get this message across when Chinese people only speak Chinese and they are not on the internet with the rest of the world? Please make it your life mission to educate the people of China regarding the value of wildlife. I will be forever grateful. And so will the 100,000+ supporters of the David Sheldrick wildlife trust and future generations

  • raewyn

    It is almost too late for pussy footing around, an army of people passionate about saving the elephant are needed China now. A complete ban on ivory trade of any description as its “value” needs to be expunged from people’s minds. Heavy penalties for the keeping of it and scorn for those who do.
    I read that Yao MIng who played basketball in the States is quite pro-active in this.
    Elephants don’t have time to wait for the younger generation to come through for ivory to become unpopular, if it ever does, and their plight is so precarious now that it would not take many selfish people to destroy them completely.
    I say to hell with niceties, the world must rise up against the destruction of wildlife in so many quarters, as it is the human race that will be so much the poorer for their loss.
    China has a lot to think about these days, from the elephant and the rhino to tigers and the whole world needs to look at its complicity in the destruction of rainforest for palm oil production.
    The simple matter is there is now far too many of us for much of the wild world to survive but it is only the human race who has it in their hands to see to it that we have other species to share the world with and if you want to remain selfish about things, enrich our lives

  • Crystal

    Thank you Gao (and Christina for covering this piece)! I think the research you are doing is great, good luck with your trip- i love that there is post project investment in skills development and broader scale thinking! This is what will curb the problematic road we are on. For all the others posting and complaining that we are running out of time- guess what, Hominids, or early humans, have been extinguishing species for 100’s of thousands of years. So glad you feel so passionate- but lets be realistic it is in our genes. Money talks- so maybe we should focus on the worlds complete obsession with it, rather than pointing fingers!

  • Chada

    Dear Mr Gao, thank you so very much for your ambition and dedication to save the elephants. You are the voice from China we desperately need to hear and understand -the perspective of Chinese consumer and marketplace in particular. And you are right -we must remember the needs of the local population as well. We simply cannot force our ideas on them. We need to work together. Please keep up this great work and NEVER give up!

  • Mwaka

    In the 80s the rhino was exterminated in Zambia and the elephant was facing extinction as a result of human activity; Demand in Asia and specifically China fuelled the tragic loss.

    Untill recently there was “limited” chinese activity on the Zambian market but now with huge infrastructure development projects, the Chinese are back and what do you know our wildlife is under dire threat.
    A reintoduced rhino was poached right out of a protected park, incidences of elephant poaching have increased dramatically in the last few years. While trees like rosewood are being cut down at alarming rates destined for the Chinese market and that is not even the half of it.
    I don’t care what value you place on ivory, it is threatening the future of these magnificent creatures. It is wrong and must be stopped now before it is too late.
    The supply is fuelled by demand, predominantly in China. Put a ban on the sale on ivory period. Is it sensible that Africa should lose such a resource because some guy in China wants a stauts symbol, a piece or jewelry, a religious doll or to feel like a man? There is no justification for it.

  • Selena Loren

    Thank you for your nuanced and meticulous research. It’s inspiring to see someone digging deeper than the labels “Chinese” and “African” to the real root drivers of this problem. I think your work brings much needed understanding and truth to this dire -and polarizing- problem.

  • Paul Udoto

    Many thanks to the writer for the probing questions that enabled GAO to provide insights that are sorely missing. I would like to benefit from such enlightening perspectives as I prepare to develop communication materials targeting ivory consumers in the Far East, especially China.

  • julie

    I do not understand why people take so long to recognise and understand what is happening to elephants. After all we are supposed to live in a civilised and technological age. I find it hard to work out why a country so prosperous in technology and communications should say people do not know that elephants are killed for their ivory. Do they not teach them anything at school. To me it is just an excuse to delay a full ban taking place, allowing the elephant clock to tick, and 4 more are killed every hour. At this rate, they will not have to bring in a new law to ban ivory trade as there will not be any wild elephants left on our planet. Elephants are iconic, and must be respected and saved from extinction. The time is very near before it is too late.

  • Jude Price

    Thank you for this insight and some corrections to mis-understandings of Chinese culture and the extent of the purchasing consumers.. I would love to see the excellent documentary series from the BBC called “Echo of the Elephants” with a new audio narration for the Chinese Television market – it could be a great education for the general public and especially the baofahu and tuhao! Perhaps you could reach out to BBC and other top end elephant organisations and partner across channels to get this amazing story televised in China? it has done so much in the west to create an understanding about the lives of elephants – full of pathos, humour and family…

  • Franette Armstrong

    Thank you for this wonderful piece of cultural education and allowing your subject to speak so clearly about an issue that is killing elephants: the vacuum that is created by the sale of ANY ivory, but particularly what is deemed “antique” ivory because increase in market prices increases demand and that increases the value of poached ivory which increases the level of risk poachers are willing to take to find and kill elephants. There has to be a worldwide ban on the sale of ivory of any type. Collectors can physically exchange one piece for another, donate it to museums, wear it on their heads…but if they sell it, they have the blood of elephants on their hands and that is the truth.

  • Jay

    Great piece, thanks so much. I am saddened that the President of China has not done more. I understand now it is about the culture, but i know the Chinese listen to the President, and if he said loud and clear what is going on, if the gov’t would work to find any shop that buys illegal ivory and shut them down one by one, things would start to change. But he hasn’t. Why? He is a very educated man, does he not care?

  • WildEarth

    The largest driver of the demand for ivory are Chinese rich people. Period. They don’t give a damn about the elephants. They will destroy this beautiful creature forever in the name of their greed and “culture.” They are the most dishonorable people on the planet, trolling in every country to take everything they can, especially the natural resources. They have virtually enslaved Africans for labor on African land. They’re doing the same thing in South America, and they’re even trolling the U.S. for as much real estate as possible. Everyone in the world knows that the Chinese are the most brutal people on the planet when it comes to the treatment of animals. They skin animals alive; they imprison bears for their bile; they are a huge reason for the bushmeat trade (they have a thing for monkey brains); the list goes on. Chinese medicine is a medicine built on the destruction of animals. And their excuse is always something to do with their “cultural” beliefs. A culture that has no compassion indicates a culture of people who have no soul. People can spew all the politically correct, relativist nonsense they want, but the truth is that the Chinese are destroying the world.

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