Elephants are in danger. Our research could help save them.


Joshua Busby and Leo Carter, Washington Post

Date Published
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On Sept. 24, South Africa will open the 2016 CITES meeting — a gathering that could help determine the survival of the world’s remaining elephants, as well as other endangered species.

CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora, banned the international trade in ivory in 1989, but later allowed two one-off sales of ivory to serve demand in Japan and China. CITES hoped these sales would flood the market, decrease prices and make illegal ivory less attractive.

However, the way the Chinese government handled ivory from the 2008 one-off sale had the opposite effect. Ivory prices increased, leading to speculative hoarding, laundering of illegal ivory through the legal market, and greater pressures on elephants.

Elephants are in danger

The Great Elephant Census project recently found that the number of African savanna elephants fell 30 percent in just seven years, with fewer than 400,000 remaining. Central Africa’s forest elephants are in worse shape, with perhaps fewer than 100,000 remaining in the wild.

Demand for ivory is driving the poaching of African elephants. Conservation experts believe as much as 70 percent of global ivory demand comes from China.

Competing proposals at the upcoming CITES meeting would tackle the ivory issue in different ways. Some African countries suggest closing all domestic ivory markets. However, Namibia and Zimbabwe claim their elephant populations are doing well and want to legally trade their ivory.

Whatever the outcome at the CITES conference, a chief problem will be convincing consumers in Asia — especially China — to stop buying ivory.

In recent years, the Chinese government has tried to rein in ivory consumption. In February and October 2015, China issued temporary import bans on carved ivory (for which limited personal imports had remained legal) and on ivory hunting trophies, respectively (imports of private trophies remained legal under CITES). These bans are set to expire by 2020. In September 2015, China also promised to close its domestic ivory market (which has been working through its 2008 stockpile), but the government has not announced further details on the timetable.

How do you convince people not to buy ivory?

Scientist Terry Garcia posed this essential question in a 2015 article. Two years ago, we began a research project to answer this question. In August 2015, we fielded a survey experiment in China with roughly 1,600 respondents.

Our research found that wealthier men were the most likely consumers of ivory. So we carried out a second survey with more than 1,300 men who said they had incomes of over 50,000 renminbi (about $7,500) a year. We surveyed respondents from all over China online with the help of a Chinese survey market research firm.

We identified how different kinds of messages might influence Chinese ivory consumption habits and potentially induce respondents to support more aggressive efforts to end the sale of ivory. In addition to a control condition with no message, we created three messages: one that detailed how the Chinese government would punish ivory purchasers; a second emphasizing the impact of ivory purchases on elephants; and a third on ivory trafficking’s influence on armed conflict in Africa. Each message came with a mock news story and a photo.

We expected the Chinese law enforcement message to be most persuasive. We were wrong. Those who viewed the “punishment” condition showed no statistically different responses from the control group in either survey.

‘Elephants suffer’ is a powerful message

In both the public and wealthy male surveys, we found the strongest effects among those who saw the “elephants suffer” message. Only 10 percent of those respondents said they intended to buy ivory in the future, compared to the 17 percent in the control group. However, Chinese women responded more to the message about the impact of poaching on conflict in Africa.

One reason the “elephants suffer” condition might be especially effective is that more than one-third of Chinese don’t realize that obtaining ivory kills elephants.

In our mass survey, we found that 36 percent of survey respondents didn’t know that obtaining ivory requires killing the elephant. A 2013 study by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) showed similar results. IFAW argued that the Chinese word for ivory, xiang ya (“elephant tooth”), gave people the impression that ivory hunters could extract tusks without killing the elephant.

While our survey suggests that public education efforts could reduce demand for ivory, as was the case for shark fin, it is not clear public opinion on its own will change fast enough to prevent a further crash in elephant populations. Though a message threatening potential punishment for ivory purchasers did not seem especially effective in our surveys, actual implementation of a domestic ban on sale of ivory might.

Can China close off the ivory market?

What barriers would the government face if it decided to close the domestic market? Our research suggests that the government would need to address what to do with the licenses of merchants who sell ivory legally — and the existing stockpile of ivory those vendors already have. They would also face challenges of people hoarding ivory as an investment opportunity. A growing online gray market poses additional obstacles to enforcement.

To deal with the first problem, Zhou Fei of the environmental NGO TRAFFIC suggested that the government allow ivory licenses for legal merchants to expire at the end of 2016, and not renew them. To address the stockpile issue, the government, as one Chinese researcher recommended, could initiate a buyback program for raw and finished ivory from those licensed carving factories.

As for the problems of hoarding, speculation and laundering, the government could make the temporary bans on imported carvings and ivory trophies permanent. Destroying the remaining stockpiles and removing this ivory from circulation would also send a strong message. Together, these moves might convince speculators they cannot launder illegal sales through a legal market and that they will not be able to profit from hoarding.

Whether China will announce a more specific plan and time frame for closing domestic ivory markets remains to be seen. What is clear is that the future of elephants depends on what China decides to do next.

Joshua Busby is an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

Leo Carter is a third-year master’s student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.