PUBLIC CAMPAIGNS IN CHINA LEAD TO AN IVORY BAN: How an NBA player helped end the sale of ivory in China

Keisha Sapphire Holgate

Between 1979 to 1987,illegal poaching of African elephants to obtain their ivory tusks caused a decline of their population from 1.3 million to only 600,000 individuals. Currently, tens of thousands of elephants are killed each year for their ivory. Elephant ivory is aesthetically valued due to certain attributes such as the “durability, the ease with which it can be carved, and its absence of splintering [making it] uniquely suited for a variety of uses”. These properties have made ivory an indicator of social status, with it being used in musical instruments such as piano keys, billiard pool balls, utensils, jewelry, ornamental carvings and other worked ivory items. Many legal sales of ivory include these worked ivory products under the classification as an antique. “Ivory” is often lumped together with materials such as jade, ebony or amber, in terms of the intricate and valued carvings or jewelry they help make. China is the biggest consumer market for jewelry and ornamental products carved from ivory.

After an 1989 international treaty banned ivory, China chose to permit domestic trade, with a licensing system that permitted the import of ivory tusks that were from natural deaths or seized by authorities.  Ivory in the legal Chinese market is also from pre-CITES ivory and includes the 2008 CITES-supported sale that brought in 60,000 metric tons to China. This legal domestic trade was facilitated by government-owned ivory carving factories. Ivory carving in China is considered an ancient skill that is prized.

Education about the origins of ivory illustrate a disconnect between the word “ivory” and the dead elephant from which it came. In a survey by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (“IFAW”), 1,253 Chinese citizens across six cities were asked about ivory. The survey found that 70 percent of those surveyed believe that ivory is “elephant teeth” that fall out of elephant’s mouths and grow back. Apparently, some dealers in China spread this myth, as a reporter was told that the elephant was not killed for the ivory carving that the dealer was trying to sell instead told that after the ivory, or tooth, fell out another one grew back just like a human adult’s tooth comes in after the baby tooth falls out. The myth from the seller is either a part of the selling tactic to unsuspecting buyers, or according to the IFAW survey, merely reflects the prevalence of the population in believing that no harm comes to the elephant in order to obtain ivory. Either way, this unawareness of the truth can be combatted by nationwide education and publicity of the true nature of the illegal ivory trade.

This shift in public awareness can lead to a change in consumer behavior. The famous Chinese NBA basketball player, Yao Ming, helped to shift this awareness by using his celebrity status to reach the people of China. In 2012, Ming began filming a documentary in Kenya and South Africa. In this documentary, he came across the remains of five elephants that were killed by poachers for their ivory. In 2013, Ming headed a series of advertisements in collaboration with NGOs such as WildAidand Save the Elephants, depicting the overconsumption of ivory by the Chinese people coupled with the destructive effects of poaching on the elephant populations. Finally, in 2014, at a prominent political meeting, Yao Ming, specifically submitted a petition to the Chinese parliament that called for a ban on ivory sales and he used his seat on an advisory board to bring up the issue of a ban in closed-door meetings.

In 2016, the Chinese president announced the country’s decision to shut down its ivory market and phase out the commercial processing and sale of ivory. This included the closure of its ivory carving workshops and retail stores by the end of 2017. This domestic ivory ban also includes a commitment to help those with the ancient skill of ivory carving with transition to a new field.

This is an example of how a public awareness campaign can change the public perception of the ivory trade thus leading to societal pressures on the government to heed the will of the people. The commitment by the government to help preserve and translate the cultural identity of ivory carvers into a new field shows that sensitivity to old ideas can help foster in the implementation of new ideas. Other consumer nations can use this approach with celebrity spokespersons, international norms and mindfulness to the societal role of ivory in implementing change.


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