China Just Banned Ivory Sales. Now What?

Carved elephant ivory figures in a souvenir shop © WWF / Folke Wulf

By Jan Vertefeuille and Zhou Fei

On December 31, 2017, China instituted a national ban on the elephant ivory trade, marking an auspicious beginning to the new year for African elephants. Yet history tells us that criminals will continue to flout the law so long as there are customers for their products. Only by reducing demand for ivory can we bring this macabre industry to an end.

The latest official population estimate for African elephants found 110,000 fewer in 2015 compared to 2006. The main culprit is poaching, and the single greatest driver of poaching is consumer desire for ivory. The so-called “white gold” is particularly desired in China — largely for its artistic value, cultural heritage and gifting.

But the customer isn’t always right. The criminal networks behind the illegal ivory trade supplying this consumer demand not only devastate elephant populations across Africa, but undermine rule of law and economic development wherever they operate. And, in some instances, legal ivory markets provide cover for illegal ivory traders to more easily launder their ill-gotten wares. China’s decision to shut down its legal ivory market — the largest in the world — is a game-changer.

A recent survey of Chinese consumers finds that the ban could serve as a powerful deterrent. Indeed, according to the survey, the ban itself is enough to persuade more than half of self-identified ivory buyers to stop purchasing it altogether. And yet, fewer than 1 in 5 of those surveyed could cite any regulations on ivory trade, underscoring how important it is raise public awareness about the market closure.

Even with a robustly enforced ban and effective public awareness, there will be some hold-outs. If we want to stop ivory trade and associated poaching, we need to change consumer behavior and public perception of ivory within China.

We know it’s possible because it’s been done before. Consider the decline in drunk driving that occurred in the U.S. in the 1980s and early 1990s: research indicates that the change in public attitudes during this time — driven in part by groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) — played a greater role than stricter drunk driving laws.

MADD’s campaigns succeeded because they focused on not just stopping drunken driving, but making it broadly socially unacceptable as well. The recent ivory survey provides the global conservation community with key insights that could empower us to do the same with ivory purchasing — including the fact that Millennials and overseas travelers are two of the largest groups that still need to be persuaded in China.

The stakes are high. If we succeed in altering public perception around ivory, we help save the African elephant and take a big step toward ultimately ending the broader illegal wildlife trade valued at $19 billion every year. Make no mistake, China’s ivory ban is a victory for elephants. When we succeed in changing hearts and minds, we’ll win the war.

Jan Vertefeuille is the Senior Director, Advocacy, Wildlife Campaigns for World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Zhou Fei is the Head of Office – China for TRAFFIC.


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For 50 years, WWF has been protecting the future of nature. The world’s leading conservation organization, WWF works in 100 countries and is supported by more than one million members in the United States and close to five million globally. WWF's unique way of working combines global reach with a foundation in science, involves action at every level from local to global, and ensures the delivery of innovative solutions that meet the needs of both people and nature.