All eyes will look towards China as world leaders gather in London for Wildlife Summit

Ivory for sale at the 'China Arts & Crafts' department store in Tsim Sha Tsui district, Kowloon, Hong Kong, China, 19 March 2013. c. IFAW/A. HoffordEven as the world’s leaders gather in London for the global wildlife trade summit, we all know what part of the world they have their eyes on.

China, where everyone knows demand for wildlife products is the highest.

I welcome the attention. Because in the last few months, we have made huge strides in my home country to fight wildlife trade, promoting awareness, changing attitudes, and ultimately reducing—perhaps in some cases, eliminating—this demand.

In just two days after the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) launched its Chinese New Year campaign “Give Peace to Elephants, Say No to Ivory Gifting,” the Weibo message was retweeted over 27,000 times.

RELATED: With a New Year in China comes a new campaign

While I was delighted to see more than 6,000 Chinese netizens sent in supporting comments @IFAW on Weibo, what particularly encouraged me were two other social media campaigns against wildlife consumption organized by none other but the Chinese government media outlets.

Echoing IFAW’s call for Chinese consumers to reject ivory trade, China Central Television campaign showed an elephant carcass in the killing fields in Africa reminding Chinese consumers of the hundreds of elephants killed for the ivory trade; a knife-wielding hand with a sliced off shark fin at the People’s Daily Weibo called for consumers to stop eating wildlife parts and products.

In China where the media is very much controlled by the government, these short but definitive calls for the rejection of wildlife consumption from key government media outlets represent an increased awareness among policy makers of China’s role in the global wildlife crisis.  

The government has made two great symbolic gestures recently as well. Late last year, as part of a sweeping government crackdown on corruption, excessive spending and extravagance, the Chinese Government issued a ban ruling out serving dishes containing shark fins, bird nests and other wild animal products at official reception dinners. Then, in January, the government pulverized more than six tons of ivory from its stockpile to send a message that the illegal ivory trade is wrong.

Click here to see the results of Operation Cobra, a multinational investigation and seizure of wildlife parts that included China.

Knowledge is the first step in changing attitudes and behavior. Our past campaigns in China prove this.

Let’s start with the simplest of misconceptions. In China, there is much ignorance about the source of ivory and the impact of its consumption on elephants— individuals as well as populations. That ignorance allows consumers to only see the beauty of ivory carvings without knowing the lives of elephants lost for that ivory.

Based on a public opinion poll which found that 7 out of 10 Chinese did not know ivory comes from dead elephants, IFAW successfully executed an advertising campaign—“Mom, I have teeth” —in China a few years ago. Evidence indicates the campaign is raising awareness, and recent market research shows the ads achieved a 75 percent penetration of China’s urban market. Consumers are less likely to buy ivory products after viewing ads that clearly show animals must die for the trade.

IFAW’s “Say NO to Ivory” public awareness messages in airports, railway stations, bus lines and magazines online and offline across China have been seen by hundreds of millions of people. At the new international airport in Kunming, Yunnan province in China, passengers clearing customs or waiting in the departure lounge are attracted by two colorful display cases, urging Chinese travelers to “Think Twice. Do not buy or traffic in wildlife products.”

It’s working. A campaign evaluation conducted last year by Rapid Asia showed that IFAW’s messages have effectively lowered the proclivity to buy ivory from 54% to 26% in certain consumer segments identified as high-risk. Among past ivory buyers, those who pledge definitely not to buy ivory in the future doubled from 33% to 66% after exposure to the IFAW ad campaign. As more Chinese feel remorse for purchasing ivory, the more the demand will decrease.

IFAW’s survey has also indicated that many former ivory purchasers would not buy ivory again if it were illegal to do so. Therefore, IFAW engages Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) to influence policy change at the national and international level.

Sharing market monitoring information with enforcement agencies to help them increase their detection, interdiction and prosecution efforts, and advocating for the elimination of the legal domestic ivory trade are key activities essential to reduce market demand for ivory.

According to a recent IFAW survey of ivory markets, the ivory stockpile sale in 2007 actually spurred an increase in the production and trade of ivory. It doesn’t matter whether it’s legal or illegal: parallel markets stimulate further demand for elephant ivory from wealthy elite consumers, a growing class in China who covet ivory products as “white gold.”

It is very difficult for a consumer to distinguish whether a wildlife product sold in the market is legal or illegal. What’s more, such market parallelization challenges control and enforcement efforts, providing cover and loopholes for illegal ivory to be “laundered.”

Therefore, we need to ensure uniform and unambiguous legislation against production and consumption, rigorous enforcement of those laws, meaningful punishment for violations, and attaching a social stigma to continued consumption. In other words, if a product is not legally available and consumers know without doubt it is illegal to buy then only those who are willing to risk criminality will continue to buy.

Lastly, but certainly not to be overlooked, is the effort to educate a younger generation. Through its Animal Action Education program, IFAW promotes an understanding of wildlife to school children who would otherwise not have access to such information. Recently, a middle school in Yunnan province, the last stronghold for Asian elephants in China, developed a text book on elephants, as part of IFAW’s AAE program and made possible by a grant from the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund.

With the gathering of world leaders in London this week for the summit to combat wildlife crime on the entire trade chain, from poaching to trafficking to demand, let’s hope the world can count on China to do its part for wildlife, by making ALL ivory trade illegal and cracking down on wildlife consumption and demand.

--GGG

For more information about IFAW efforts to stop the demand for elephant ivory, visit our campaign page.

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Experts

Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
IFAW Elephant Expert
IFAW Elephant Expert
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
James Isiche, Regional Director, East Africa
Regional Director, East Africa
Jason Bell, Program Director, Elephants Regional Director, South Africa
Program Director, Elephants, Regional Director, South Africa
Peter Pueschel, Director, International Environmental Agreements
Director, International Environmental Agreements
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Regional Director, South Asia