Signs of Hope in China

“…Ivory does not stand for blessing or lucky charm anymore.”

Not all ivory is illegal. One can buy ivory items in countless antique shops around the United States. The items must be accompanied by legitimate paperwork verifying that it was imported before the 1989 international ban was put in place to stop the flow of tusks out of Africa.

But illegal ivory looks just like legal ivory, and it’s all too easy to create false papers. The trade ban only works if countries enforce it.

Today, the eyes of the world are on China, where enforcement has been lax and demand is soaring. It’s estimated that well over half of the illegal ivory flowing out of Africa ends up here.

Recent research by non-profit organization WildAid suggests that most consumers are unaware that ivory is obtained by killing elephants and that there is a poaching crisis underway.

This is the world that Xiaohua Sun stepped into as The Nature Conservancy’s Beijing-based Ivory Project Director.

We asked Xiaohua 5 key questions about the ivory issue.

1. WHAT’S THE REASON FOR THE HIGH CONSUMER DEMAND FOR IVORY IN CHINA? 

XIAOHUA: The major reasons are the booming Chinese economy and that ivory is a favored luxury item with strong cultural heritage. People believe that owning ivory objects shows high taste and wealth. Some Chinese buy ivory as an investment, like buying gold or purchasing real estate.

To complicate matters, most consumers simply don’t know the facts and it is impossible for the buyer to discern conclusively that a given item is legal or illegal.

2. WHAT IS TNC CHINA DOING TO ADDRESS THIS PROBLEM?

XIAOHUA: We have a tremendous asset in our Board of Directors, so we’re placing strong emphasis on working with them to influence government policy and reduce demand for ivory among top tier consumers. We’re also educating the Board Members directly, as well as their friends who hold high social positions and large wealth. Besides the morality of purchasing ivory, we’re increasing understanding of the current poaching crisis and stressing the legality aspect. Our strategies will evolve and expand as we proceed.

3. YOU ATTENDED A RECENT EVENT IN WHICH THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT CRUSHED SIX TONS OF CONFISCATED ILLEGAL IVORY. WHAT WAS THAT EXPERIENCE LIKE?

XIAOHUA: I felt very depressed myself when the ivory, carved or not, was sent into the crusher. Those elephants died for nothing. If not for growing such tusks, they might still be alive in Africa now. However, they just died for nothing. Most people on site were silent and did not wait for the end of the crush. It was like escaping from the scene, trying not to think about all the related things.

The public response to the crush triggered many thoughts for me later. The first response from most people was “such a huge waste.” Questions in my own mind include: “Is there any better way to deal with the stockpile? Will the destruction push forward the price? If the government released the stockpile to the market rather than crushing it, would it dilute the market share, drag down the price and crack down speculation?”

I do not have answers. But the response made it clear to me that we must take a targeted, strategic approach that leverages our relationships with some of China’s most powerful business leaders and cultural influencers. The solution would not be as simple as pinning up posters in subway stations.

4. ARE YOU HOPEFUL THAT THE POACHING CRISIS CAN BE SOLVED?

XIAOHUA: Yes. There is an ancient Chinese saying that a thousand-mile journey happens step by step. I believe we are taking steps every day.

I also have faith in the Chinese young generation, who will finally phase out purchasing ivory. The education they are receiving is giving them not just knowledge, but also an international perspective and a good sense of judgment. They know the Earth needs them to take efforts to protect it.

They know what kind of Chinese tradition deserves to be preserved, and what does not. They know how to invest. And they know how to spend extra money to enjoy life in ways that are morally responsible.

5. WHAT CAN PEOPLE IN CHINA DO TO HELP?

XIAOHUA: First, get educated on the facts. The ivory issue is very complex and there is a lot of misinformation out there. People can find more information here. Then, help increase awareness by sharing the facts with your family and friends.

Ultimately, the best way to avoid purchasing illegal ivory is simply not to purchase any at all.

Please go to our online registry and sign a pledge to not buy ivory and to encourage your friends and family to not buy it either.

To anyone who truly understands the bloodshed that is involved in the illegal ivory trade, the decision to use a piece of it as a tabletop decoration cannot be taken light-heartedly.

In tradition, the imperial or royal families collected ivory for blessings or as lucky charms. Now because of the brutal poaching of elephants, ivory does not stand for blessing or lucky charm anymore.

Ultimately, the best way to avoid purchasing illegal ivory is simply not to purchase any at all.

To learn more about what you can do to #SaveElephants, visit nature.org/elephants.

*http://cites.org/eng/news/pr/2013/20131202_elephant-figures.php

Photo: Devan King



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