Banning ivory trade a milestone in fight to save elephants

The author explains the nuances of demand reduction and how policy affects it to the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival’s Elephant Conservation Summit audience

UPDATE: A day after this original blog ran, China’s State Forestry Administration announced a one-year ban on the import of African ivory acquired as hunting trophies. For comments on this news, please go to the press release that addresses this development with quotes from the author. --Eds.

At the Elephant Conservation Summit during the recent Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, I was on the “Curb the Demand” panel.  

The panel host asked me to explain what demand reduction means and how policy influences it: “In China, IFAW is combining public outreach and social mobilization with policy advocacy to push for change. How important are policy efforts to demand reduction?”

There couldn’t have been a more perfect time to talk about the importance of policy in reducing demand!

Just less than 48 hours before, President Xi Jinping of China and President Obama had jointly announced to ban ivory trade in both countries.

While extremely happy for this high-level political pledge, I had to remind myself that a trade ban is only a milestone in the fight to save elephants. 

The ban on international ivory trade by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1989 was the first policy decision that shattered markets and reduced ivory prices, weakening the incentive of poaching elephants for their ivory.

However, just as African elephant populations started to recover, the CITES trade ban was sabotaged by the repeated sales of ivory from Africa to Asia, creating grey markets and legal loopholes for criminals to exploit.

Ivory is historically attached with many cultural, social, religious, esthetic values in Asian countries. In the past ivory was only the purview of a privileged few.

The re-opening of the legal ivory markets in China in 2008 awakened the dormant demand from 1.3 billion people with rising income and desire to show off status and wealth with luxury products, including those from endangered species.

Legal ivory markets not only give criminals ways to launder illegal ivory from poached elephants, they confuse consumers who often take market availability for legality.

To make wildlife parts and products unavailable and inaccessible on the marketplaces, IFAW has worked since 2007 with e-commerce giant Alibaba and its Chinese subsidiary Taobao to ban endangered species from online trade.

At the end of 2011, based on a tip off from IFAW, China’s wildlife authority banned the auction of tiger bone, rhino horn and elephant ivory across the country, resulted in a 40 percent reduction of auction turnover on mainland China in 2012. The reduction in auctions of ivory art made ivory to lose value causing those who speculate with endangered species to think twice about their investment strategy.  A recent study shows that the ivory auction ban reduced ivory art trade by 90% and saw the reduction in elephant poaching too.

In China, the role the government plays—both in making laws to discourage demand and to discipline its own behavior—is crucial in changing social attitudes.

Within a year after President Xi banned shark fin from official banquets as part of the government austerity campaign, shark fin trade declined by over 70 percent in Asia.

Recognizing the links between wildlife trade with corruption and decadence, a more enlightened Chinese populace supports government action to ban ivory trade. In an IFAW survey, the most compelling reason among previous ivory buyers for not buying ivory in the future is “to make ivory buying illegal in ALL circumstances” (60 percent) followed by “strong recommendation of a government leader” (38 percent). These attitudes represent increasing public support for President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign to include the lavish consumption of wildlife parts and products by government officials.

President Xi’s pledge to ban ivory trade is an important step towards attaching social stigma to ivory, leading to reduced demand. 

Reducing demand requires the laws uniformly and unambiguously against production and consumption of wildlife parts and products, implemented.

Strong and clear government policies banning ivory trade combined with rigorous enforcement and meaningful punishment for violations, will attach social stigma to ivory consumption, supporting demand reduction efforts by NGOs.

IFAW’s Mom, I have teeth ad campaign erases the ignorance in consumers’ minds about the origin of ivory, successfully reduced the group with the most likelihood to purchase ivory from 54 percent to 26% percent.

Chinese iconic figures from business, culture, art, and religion are speaking up with one voice influencing their peers, families, friends and fans, appealing for individuals not to buy ivory, the government to ban ivory trade, and businesses not to carve and trade in elephant ivory.

Only when ivory buying, selling, gifting, collecting and investing all have become socially unacceptable will we see demand reduced. 

The day when ivory demand is gone is the day elephants can be saved.


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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
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