Elephant Ivory Trade in China: Comparing Different Perspectives

Elephant Ivory Trade in China: Comparing Different Perspectives

Yufang Gao, MESc 2014 1


Poaching of African elephants for their ivory has been unsustainably high in recent years. International conservation groups often attribute the problem to China’s internal ivory trade. Chinese actors hold a wide variety of perspectives. This paper unveils the nuanced social context of the ivory trade within Chinese society. Data came from analysis of Chinese news articles, interviews, and participant observation. Chinese actors are generally organized around three perspectives: “pro-trade,” “anti-illegal-trade,” and “anti-all-trade.” These different perspectives manifest themselves in the identities, demands, and expectations of different actors. “Pro-trade” and “anti-illegal-trade” are the dominant perspectives, while “anti-all-trade” is an emerging perspective. Internal factors such as the ivory auction ban and external foreign pressures influence the social dynamic. Long-term African elephant conservation requires a pragmatic and workable way to address the different perspectives in a manner that clarifies and secures the common interest.


Poaching of African elephants (Loxodonta africana) has reached an unsustainable high in recent years (CITES et al. 2013). The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported that 15,000 African elephants were illegally killed at 42 monitored sites in 2012 (CITES et al. 2013). The estimated poaching rate has exceeded the natural population growth rate (CITES et al. 2013). This jeopardizes the global common interest in a viable future for African elephants (CITES et al. 2010).

The global community considers demand for ivory2 a key driver of elephant poaching (CITES et al. 2013). Despite the fact that the international commercial trade in ivory has been banned since 1989 (UNEP et al. 2013), domestic ivory trading remains legal in many countries Martin and Stiles 2008). Among all countries, China is the primary destination of illegal ivory (Underwood et al. 2013). Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) assert that the Chinese ivory trade control policy is widely abused (EIA 2011, Gabriel et al. 2012). Furthermore, they believe China’s economic prosperity has created a middle class with a huge demand for ivory, and this thereby fuels the elephant poaching in Africa. Chinese authorities disagree with these claims (CITES Management Authority of China 2012) and request that western societies take an objective view of the ivory trade in China (Anon 2014). The dispute is still ongoing. It is an all too common phenomenon in many issues pertinent to China’s growing influence over natural resources in Africa (Mol 2011).

In this paper I elucidate Chinese perspectives3 on the elephant ivory trade. I analyze the Chinese actors and their respective demands and expectations, thereby distinguishing three perspectives currently existent in Chinese society: “pro-trade,” “anti-illegal-trade,” and “anti-all-trade.” I discuss the social dynamics of different perspectives and their implications. I conclude with recommendations on adjusting the current social process (Lasswell 1970, Clark 2002) for the common interest.


Data came from multiple sources. In September 2013, I gathered ivory-related Chinese news articles on the Internet using news.baidu.com, the most popular Chinese-language search engine. I sought articles containing

(elephant ivory) in the titles. I reviewed all articles retrieved (n=2,753), and excluded non-relevant and duplicated results. Eventually, I focused on 1,327 articles published in newspapers, magazines, or news websites from January 2003 to September 2013. I recorded the titles, publication dates, and links to the web pages. I coded the themes of the articles into seven categories, and categorized the articles accordingly into seven groups (Table 1). Four groups are relevant to the discussion at hand: Group 1, “ivory arts and trade,” represents the “pro-trade” perspective; Group 2, “ivory crimes,” and Group 3, “government policy,” represent the “anti-illegal-trade” perspective; whereas Group 4, “Chinese participation,” concerns the “anti-all-trade” perspective.

In addition, from June 2013 through January 2014, I carried out extensive fieldwork in Kenya, China, the United States, Botswana, and Tanzania. In China I conducted formal and informal interviews with government officials and conservation practitioners. I visited legal and illegal ivory markets and had conversations with ivory traders and buyers. Moreover, I participated in the IUCN African Elephant Summit, and interacted with high-level Chinese government officials. All these experiences helped me to see and clarify the different perspectives presented in this paper.


Chinese actors are organized around three perspectives: “pro-trade,” “anti-illegal-trade,” and “anti-all-trade.” Different perspectives manifest themselves in the identities (who they are), demands (what they want), and expectations (matter-of-fact assumptions) of different actors (Clark 2002).

Table 1. Different groups of Chinese news articles on ivory trade.

Group Number Article Feature
1. Ivory arts and trade 436 Ivory culture, ivory carvers, and the auction, exhibition, collecting and investing of ivory artworks.
2. Ivory crimes 483 Chinese authorities combating ivory illegal activities, for example, smuggling, transporting, trafficking, and theft.
3. Government policy 26 Chinese government’s responses to international criticisms (n=12), and the ivory trade control policy (n=14).
4. Chinese participation 23 Chinese participation in elephant conservation, including investigative reports written originally by Chinese journalists.
5. International news 186 Elephant poaching and ivory trafficking in foreign countries, as well as views and actions taken by foreign governments and international organizations.
6. Ivory in Archeology 119 Discovery of ancient ivory.
7. Others 54 Articles that do not fit into the categories above.

Pro-Trade Perspective

Ivory professionals (e.g., ivory carvers, traders, collectors, and speculators) generally hold a “pro-trade” perspective. The Ivory Carving Committee under the China Arts & Crafts Association is an organized group representing the industry’s interest. By the end of 2013, there were a total of 37 licensed ivory processing factories and 145 licensed ivory retail outlets in China (SFA, 2013). Apart from the “white” legitimate ivory facilities, ivory products are traded in the “black” unlicensed shops, and the “gray” live auction market whose legality is vague (Gao and Clark, In Prep).

The pro-trade perspective is reflected in the Group 1, “ivory arts and trade” articles (n=436). This perspective is embedded in the belief that ivory carving is a part of traditional Chinese culture that should be preserved. The Chinese Ministry of Culture designated ivory carving as a national intangible cultural heritage in 2006 (Chinese State Council 2006). Master ivory carvers believe it is their responsibility to transmit this heritage to future generations (Zeng 2012). The industry strives to promote ivory culture in exhibitions, newspapers, TV, and the internet.

Many ivory professionals think that ivory carving is currently undervalued. They argue that neither the demand for ivory nor the ivory price is high (Gao and Zheng 2012). They expect opportunities for value appreciation of ivory artworks, since ivory has many values that Chinese society cherishes and it is becoming rare in the market. The perceived monetary return has attracted a crowd of speculators to invest in ivory artworks. Speculators care little about the cultural and aesthetic aspects of ivory carvings. They support the ivory trade because they profit from the business.

Anti-Illegal-Trade Perspective

The Chinese government takes an “anti-illegal-trade” perspective. The authorities approve regulated, controlled ivory trading, but they are determined to “eliminate” the illegal trade. The State Forestry Administration (SFA) is the chief department in charge of the domestic ivory trade. The General Administration of Customs, the Ministry of Public Security, and the State Administration for Industry & Commerce are also involved in tackling illegal ivory activities. Their perspective is reflected in Group 2, “ivory crimes” articles (n=483).

This perspective is rooted in the belief of sustainable use of natural resources. It is manifested in the goal of China’s ivory trade control policy: “to attend simultaneously to elephant conservation and ivory carving culture preservation” (SFA 2008). To meet this end, the authorities apply coercive (law enforcement) and educational strategies to combat illegal trading and regulatory strategies to control the legal market.

Responding to international criticisms, the authorities often argue that western conservation groups and media use misleading and inaccurate information (CITES Management Authority of China 2012). This official standpoint is frequently expressed in Group 3, “government policy” articles (n=26). The authorities are concerned that exaggerated information (e.g., about ivory price and demand) can stimulate poaching and trafficking. They often note the other causes of elephant decline, such as habitat loss and human-elephant conflict. They also highlight the responsibilities of African countries. They demand respect and trust from the international community, and call for effective international cooperation.

Anti-All-Trade Perspective

Anti-all-trade” perspective promoters are some animal welfare and conservation NGOs. Almost all groups are the Chinese branches of international organizations. Among them, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) is the most active. IFAW conducted several investigations about the ivory trade in China (IFAW 2006, Gabriel et al. 2012). Their reports are frequently quoted in Group 4, “Chinese participation” articles (n=23). In addition to IFAW, other participants include WildAid, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), WWF, TRAFFIC, and The Nature Conservancy.

The anti-all-trade group generally believes that “if there is no trade, there is no killing”. In the international arena, the organizations are calling for a moratorium or a ban on China’s domestic ivory trade. Some of the organizations believe ivory trade is immoral and should never be approved, while others can potentially accept a regulated trade but think it is unrealistic to allow the trade at this moment. The organizations are trying to mobilize Chinese public support through a number of education campaigns. Their messages to the Chinese audience tend to be more conservative than what they advocate in the West. Their opposition to illegal trade is conspicuous, but their attitude towards legal trade is ambiguous.

Figure 1. Trends of “pro-trade” and “anti-illegal-trade” discourses from 2003 to 2013. In 2011 when Chinese ivory markets were the most active, pro-trade “ivory arts and trade” news articles were twice as many as anti-illegal-trade “ivory crimes” articles. In 2013 growing international attention on ivory trafficking pushed the Chinese authorities to strengthen their law enforcement efforts, which resulted in more “ivory crimes” news articles.


Chinese society is not homogeneous; different perspectives on ivory exist. “Pro-trade” and “anti-illegal-trade” are the dominant perspectives, while “anti-all-trade” is an emerging perspective. “Pro-trade” and “anti-illegal-trade” are interrelated. Their relative significance in Chinese online discourses indicates an evolving societal focus, as well as underlying power dynamics (see Figure 1). For example, in 2011 when the Chinese domestic ivory market was the most active (Gao and Clark, In Prep), there were twice as many pro-trade articles as anti-illegal-trade ones. In comparison, in 2013 (up to September), there were 2.7 times more anti-illegal-trade articles than pro-trade articles. This was probably because growing international attention on ivory trafficking pushed the Chinese authorities to strengthen their law enforcement efforts.

Perspectives are not static. At the close of 2011, the anti-illegal-trade SFA imposed a “ban” on the live auction market of ivory artworks. The ban has seriously impacted the market and restricted the increase of ivory prices (Gao and Clark, In Prep). This policy intervention affects the expectations of pro-trade groups. Some pro-legal-trade ivory traders—owners of licensed shops, for example—feel the auction ban boosts their business, as consumers are encouraged to buy ivory in the legal market (Zhao 2012). But for the speculators who previously took advantage of the policy loopholes, the ban frustrates them because it reduces liquidation opportunities and thus increases the risk of speculation (Anon 2012) . It is likely that diplomatic pressures resulting from international criticisms have enhanced decision makers’ concern about China’s global reputation and other long-term national interests, which therefore empowers the anti-trade groups. The Chinese government crushed approximately six metric tons of confiscated ivory in January 2014. This was unexpected by most NGOs. It happened partly because the ivory crush and its symbolic meaning are in accord with the dominant anti-illegal-trade perspective, which enjoys considerable political support among Chinese actors.

Awareness about ivory trafficking has substantially increased in the past two years. The anti-all-trade perspective is gaining momentum. However, a ban on domestic ivory trade remains elusive. The current social context is not conducive to a trade ban which would be a radical departure from existing policy. A moratorium may become possible if the legitimate part of the pro-trade group is convinced that the elephant crisis undermines their interests, as well, and the best solution lies in a temporary stopping of ivory trade. This necessitates a consensus on problem definition and it requires internal negotiations among government departments with different agendas. As internal and external pressures keep raising the stakes, it is not impossible that the central Chinese government will respond to the public request and take the ivory issue as an opportunity to address other concerns (e.g., anti-corruption). After all, economically the ivory industry means little to China.


The ivory trade is a complex issue involving many different actors with various demands and expectations. The long-term viability of African elephants depends on whether participants in the policy process are able to find a workable way to resolve their different views and disagreements. A common goal is unrealistic, but understanding the differences and similarities can potentially improve communication and help find a common ground, based on which a broad and effective coalition for African elephant conservation may become possible.


I extend my gratitude to many individuals and organizations in Africa and Asia who shared their insights with me. I am grateful to my advisor, Prof. Susan Clark, for guiding me through the project. I benefitted enormously from discussions with Prof. Michael Dove, Prof. Helen Siu, and other colleagues and friends in the Yale community. This project was funded by Yale Tropical Resources Institute (TRI), Yale University East Asian Studies Council, Yale FES Carpenter & Sperry Fund, and individuals such as Margaret McCarthy and Andrew Sabin who donated to a crowd-funding campaign that I initiated.


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Anon. “China Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Chinese penalty for ivory smuggling is among the strictest.” Xinhua. 13 February 2014. Available from http://news.hexun.com/2014-02-13/162127700.html. Accessed 16 February 2014.

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CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Secretariat. 2010. African Elephant Action Plan. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. A document submitted by the African Elephant Range States to the CoP15.

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Gao, X. and S. Zheng. 2012. Ivory carving playing and appreciation. Beijing: Beijing Arts and Film Press.

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Gao, Y. 2014. Elephant Ivory Trade in China: Comparing Different Perspectives. Tropical Resources Bulletin 32-33, 101-107.

  1. Yufang Gao has a longstanding interest in interdisciplinary research and practice of wildlife conservation. He is from China, and holds a bachelor’s degree in Biology from Peking University. He focused his study at Yale F&ES on the social process of international ivory trade. Prior to his arrival at Yale, he worked with some of the most prominent Chinese conservation groups including Shanshui Conservation Center and Nyanpo Yutse Conservation Association.

  2. Ivory” refers exclusively to elephant ivory unless otherwise stated.

  3. By perspective, I mean “a particular attitude towards something; a way of thinking about something” (Oxford’s Advanced Learner’s Dictionary).