Last week, Save the Elephants announced that ivory prices in China have dropped by half in the past 18 months.
The falling ivory price indicates that public awareness campaigns by many organizations including the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), as well as President’s Xi Jiping’s pledge to close down domestic ivory markets are making an impact on consumer attitudes in China.
The drop in ivory prices is also in line with IFAW’s own research findings. A May 2015 survey showed a reduction in both the percentage of people who reported buying ivory in the past 12 months as well as those who intended to buy ivory in the future.
However, despite the decline in ivory prices and intention to purchase, I would caution about jumping to conclusions that the ivory war is over.
Even though President Xi pledged in September to ban domestic ivory markets in China, nothing has been done to put the President's pledge into action.
On the contrary, ivory trade interests in China are advocating that the legal ivory on the market be allowed to be depleted through legal sales over the next few years.
This proposal would allow the limited supply of legal ivory on the markets to continue to provide cover for the laundering of the massive illegal ivory smuggled into the country.
The reduced ivory price could be used by the traders as a promotional pitch, creating a buying frenzy or stockpiling before the trade ban comes into force, if it ever does.
Delay in the implementation of President Xi’s directive would continue to confuse Chinese consumers, many of whom take market availability for legality, fuel ivory demand in China and threaten the survival of elephants.
I agree with Ian Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, who stated “The fall in the price of ivory gives us hope, but with numbers of elephants still being killed in Africa we’re a long way from celebrating yet. Grave threats remain, and it’s vital that the complete ban in China is enforced soon.”
Experience taught us that to reduce wildlife trade, we have to address both demand and supply.
IFAW has a long history of public awareness campaigns to reduce demand for ivory trade in China. In 2007, based on a survey which showed that 70% of the Chinese do not know ivory comes from dead elephants, IFAW started the ad campaign, Mom, I have teeth. Evaluation shows that campaign reduced the group with the most propensity to buy ivory from 54% to 26%.
To reduce supply, IFAW works with e-commerce giants Alibaba and Taobao to make online marketplaces unavailable for wildlife trade. Banning trade of wildlife parts including ivory online and in auctions have resulted in sustained reduction of wildlife trade.
In May 2015, IFAW and TNC initiated the landmark collaboration with Tencent, supporting the social media giant to adopt the zero tolerance policy against wildlife trade on social media platforms.
With the elephant poaching crisis continuing, we cannot fall into the trap of believing that reducing demand alone is sufficient to save elephants, without reducing market supply.
Strict and clear laws making ivory trade illegal in all circumstances combined with vigorous enforcement and meaningful penalties for violators will stigmatize ivory consumption, supporting demand reduction efforts.