Grasping the Complexity of International Ivory Trade: The story of a young Chinese conservationist


Qiaoyi Zhuang, CapeChina

Date Published

See link for photos. Original article is in Mandarin. Below is a shortened, English version. 


In everyone’s life, there are always some inspiring friends who take a less well-travelled path. Gao is just such a friend to me. We were in the same class during the freshman year of high school in 2003. All our teachers were pretty fond of him, and our classmates highly admired him. He was a well-rounded student good at every subject. He was also very humble, and always ready to help his classmates. I still clearly remember how he blushed and smiled shyly every time when our teachers praised him. Once he told me, he would like to study Biology. He did realize his dream. In 2006 he was admitted to the School of Life Sciences at Peking University, the best in China.
Life is always full of fierce competition and arduous races for Chinese students. To the Peking University undergraduates majoring in Biology, a typical path to success is studying hard to get high GPA, GRE, and TOEFL scores, then enrolling in top American universities, and working in prestigious labs. But, Gao took a different trail. He devoted himself to becoming a conservationist, a career that is not desirable even till today. In 2008 he was awarded an internship grant from the Conservation Leadership Progamme. Taking one year off school, he started working with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) China Program. He took an active part in WCS’s filed projects throughout China. In Northern Tibet, he investigated the conflict between herders and brown bears; in Northeastern China, he participated in the conservation of Amur tiger; in the lower reaches of Yangtze River, he facilitated community education campaigns to protect the Chinese alligators. Moreover, he was able to present his research in the International Congress for Conservation Biology and the Student Conference on Conservation Science in Cambridge University. In 2011, after getting his bachelor’s degree, he decided to return to Tibet. On a fellowship provided by Shanshui Conservation Center, one of the most prominent Chinese conservation NGOs, he took another gap year living and working with a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks, helping to conserve snow leopards, Tibetan buntings, and the scared mountains and lakes on the high plateau.
Leaving the high school, Gao and I never managed to meet each other until ten years later, 2013 in New York City. I heard that he had been studying ivory trade as his Master’s research project at Yale University. He told me he was preparing a trip in order to bridge the gap in elephant conservation between Chinese and African societies. To achieve the aim, he was planning to bring two young conservation professionals from Kenya to China in June, and organize public events for them to talk to different Chinese audiences. I asked him whether he would accept an interview. As the Chief-editor of CAPE China, I was preparing a special feature on young Chinese professionals in the backdrop of China’s going out. I convinced him of CAPE’s influence among youth Chinese community at home and abroad. Ultimately, he changed his reluctance and cautiousness, opening up to me his stories of looking into the ivory trade from Africa to Asia.
We skyped twice, both at midnight. He still talked like ten years ago, patiently and slowly answering my questions. He shared with me his fieldwork experiences in Africa and China, as well as his study and research at Yale. Listening to his narratives, I felt I was with him wandering the African savannah and jungle, elated at seeing the wonderful creatures in the fascinating land. I felt I was with him investigating the ivory black markets, frightened when dealing with the illegal dealers on his own. I felt his joy at receiving the best talk prize in the Student Conference on Conservation Science in New York 2013. I also felt his nervousness and puzzlement when he, for the first time, attended a glamorous fundraising dinner in an upscale Manhattan restaurant and presented as a Youth Ambassador at the high-level African Elephant Summit.
After all these wonderful and eye-opening adventures, Gao has become more certain about his inner calling and more confident about his potential to make a difference. He is grateful to the support from many remarkable figures who have a genuine deep love for nature and who have led him by example. With a more clear voice in his heart, he continues his life journey with a non-stop curiosity and a passionate care for nature and human welfare.

Ivory Research
In September 2012, Gao left the Tibetan Plateau, and became a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. In this vibrant, fast-paced Ivy League school, he felt the pressure, the uncertainties, but also a great excitement. He decided to study ivory trade as his research topic because of a widespread article published in the National Geographic. In this article, China was portrayed as the “greatest villain” for the terrible elephant poaching in Africa. According to this and many other English news articles, Chinese economy growth has created a burgeoning middle class who are keen on consuming ivory to show off their social status, and this “Chinese insatiable appetite for ivory” creates incentives for illegal poaching, thereby threatening the survival of African elephants. Gao felt confused at reading these articles. Because of his experience with wildlife conservation in China, he immediately realized a great gap between Chinese and western understandings about the ivory trade. A lot of Chinese, including government officials and experts, accused western media and NGOs of exaggerating Chinese ivory market and demand. Gao couldn’t help pondering: what is the fact? His curiosity intrigued him to undertake an applied research project focusing on the policy process of international ivory trade.
His research had two parts: the first was about the “fact” and the second about “perception” – what different stakeholders thought about the “fact”. During his first year at Yale, he did a discourse analysis to compare the Chinese and western views on ivory trade. He also collected quantitative data on Chinese ivory markets, and fitted statistical models to understand the relationship between African elephant poaching and Chinese ivory trade. In addition, he “mapped” the social context of the international ivory trade by analyzing the different players, their perspectives, and their interactions.
In the summer of 2013, Gao started his fieldwork in several different countries. In Kenya, while staying with a group of field conservationists in Samburu, he heard gun shots from poachers, witnessed elephant carcasses, and talked to local people living in close proximity to elephants. In Dar es Salaam of Tanzania, he pretended himself as an ivory buyer, and collected information by interacting with illegal dealers in the black markets. In Botswana, he discussed with government officials and conservation practitioners on how to effectively curb the illegal killing. He also returned to Hong Kong and a number of cities in mainland China. He visited the legal and illegal ivory facilities, observed and carried out conversations with ivory sellers and buyers to get the first hand information about the market. In all these places, he conducted interviews with people who were actively involved in elephant conservation, carefully listening in order to understand their concerns. Furthermore, back in the US, he attended a variety of conferences and events including the ivory crush in Denver where he interacted with many people sharing the same cause.
The work he had done was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. Gradually, he put all the messy pieces into an integrated framework that neatly illustrated what was going on with the complicated elephant poaching and ivory trafficking problem. He explained to me that any environmental or social problem has three layers. Taking the ivory trade as an example, he said, many people often only saw the first layer of the problem, that is, the obvious phenomena such as poaching and trafficking, and people often tend to look for technical solutions which surely have their merits but are definitely inadequate. He believed that, these undesired phenomena surface due to a lack of well-functioned social and decision-making processes that can help different stakeholders clarify and secure their common interests. This is the second layer – the governance problem. In the elephant case, for instance, international community should collectively make decisions as to how many elephants we want to protect in consideration of the diverse geographical, social, economic, and institutional contexts, what factors are threatening the elephants, what mechanisms we are going to use to protect the elephants, where the needed resources are to come from, and how multiple stakeholders at different scales are supposed to implement the decisions, and monitor and evaluate the effectiveness in achieving the set goals. Fundamentally, he said the elephant problem is about the constitutive decision process, or the rules of making rules – the third layer of the problem: whose elephants, and who gets to decide how we are going to treat the elephants?
Elephant poaching and international ivory trafficking involves a multitude of actors with diverse interests and values. Different actors essentially have different goals. They often see the problem differently in terms of the trends, drivers, and future projections, and consequently, they propose different solutions. In Gao’s view, problem is not “out there”; instead, problem is defined by people who perceive what they value is losing. Because of the different perspectives and values, people naturally develop different stories to explain the “facts” and often tend to cherry-pick evidence to support their “facts”, thus ending up in endless debates and disputes. As a result, a broad and effective coalition for elephant conservation is unfortunately undermined by the misinformation, misperception and the deeply underlying mistrust among these different actors. To compound matters, the elephant poaching problem is intimately linked to many other issues, for example, corruption, terrorism, and international relations. “Elephant has already become a symbol,” as Gao said. Different individuals, groups, and organizations are using this symbol to promote different agendas, some visible on the table while others may be behind the scenes; nonetheless, it is all about the eight values that human beings pursuit: power, wealth, respect, rectitude (moral responsibility), enlightenment, skill, affection, and well-being.

China’s role
China’s role in the elephant poaching problem is a primary focus of Gao’s research. What is the situation of illegal ivory markets? How large is ivory consumption in China? What are the drivers of the illicit trade? Gao set out to explore these questions.
China has long history of ivory carving, dating back to the Neolithic Age, and reaching its peak in the Ming (1368 – 1644 AD) and Qing (1644 – 1911 AD) Dynasties. After the CITES ban on international commercial ivory trade in 1989, the ivory carving industry was almost extinct. In 2004, Chinese authorities introduced an Ivory Identification and Registration System in order to regulate the domestic ivory market. All ivory products shall only be processed and sold in designated sites. With the CITES approval, China imported 62 metric tons of ivory from some Southern African countries in 2009. According to many NGOs and media, this influx of ivory stimulated Chinese demand, and thereby leading to the surge of elephant poaching in Africa.
During his investigation in China, Gao noticed the policy loopholes as many organizations had already pointed out. For example, some traders of legal ivory shops were found to be implicated in laundering illegal ivory by taking advantage of the flawed identification card system. He also noticed that many illegal ivory dealers had started shifting their business to the online forums since the authorities strengthened their efforts to cracking down on the black markets. In the Baidu Post Bar, an online platform that allows users to establish online discussion group, many ivory traders post photos of raw and worked ivory for sale, usually low-end ivory trinkets. They used the wechat (Chinese version of “whatsup”) to communicate with potential consumers. Gao said that he had reported the phenomena to relevant authorities, companies, and NGOs, but until now concrete actions have yet to come.
In addition to the legal “white” market and illegal “black” market, Gao found a “grey market” which has so far received little attention from western organizations and media. He referred the grey market exclusively to the live auction of ivory products. He said, when talking about ivory auction in China, many western conservationists tend to confuse it with the online auction which has already been effectively controlled after measures taken since 2005. But, what he called attention on is the live auction managed by antique auction houses in China. This is a gray market because the current ivory regulation policy does not distinguish antique and new ivory products, while ivory collectors and speculators did, and in their perception, auction is the most important channel for the trading of high-value ivory antiques. At auction, ivory price can achieve incredibly high. Gao’s quantitative analysis showed that this grey market started to surge around 2006, mushroomed after 2009, and peaked in 2011 – exactly the trend of elephant poaching in Africa. Fortunately, an official intervention by the end of December in 2011 banned the ivory auction and curbed the rising rate of quantity of ivory put on auction. Interestingly, while many Chinese news articles discussed the impacts of this “ivory auction ban”, in the past two years almost no English news articles about China’s ivory trade ever mentioned this market and this ban. Gao noted that some groups are currently lobbying the Chinese government to lift the auction ban. He hoped those concerned about elephants should pay more attention to this ivory live auction market that has the big money, considering its significant implications for elephant conservation.
Another question Gao wondered about China’s ivory trade is: what has driven ivory consumption in China? Gao was not satisfied with the common explanation that the demand was stimulated by the CITES approved one-off sale in 2008. He attempted to explore the nuanced societal conditions relevant to China and Chinese in Africa. Particularly, he illustrated to me some of the most important contributing factors taking place within Chinese society in the past one decade.
His study showed that, Chinese society attaches a number of different values to ivory. These values range from cultural and artistic merits, to economic, religious, social, and medicinal benefits. Generally these values indicate consumers’ different motivations for buying ivory. He tried to understand the societal changes that had resulted in the promotion of ivory values. Two main factors caught his attention.
The first is a movement of culture preservation since the beginning of 21st century. Around 2002, Chinese government started to put traditional culture preservation on the agenda, and ivory carving hence resurrected in this tide of cultural revival. In 2006, ivory carving was designated as a national intangible cultural heritage, enjoying substantial support from the state. This recognition enhanced the cultural values of ivory carving, making it more precious.
The second and perhaps the most important driver is a boom of arts investment, especially after 2008. As real estate and stock markets underwent depression, a large amount of capital from individuals and professional investment companies started to enter the art market. Many kinds of antiques and collectibles became extremely popular. Just like the ancient Chinese paintings, porcelains, and jades, antique ivory was rapidly promoted as a profitable investment alternative. Media coverage about the astronomical prices of auctioned ivory greatly boosted the perceived economic value of ivory products, no matter whether it
was new or old, which therefore led to an expansion of ivory demand.
Even though, Gao noted that ivory consumption in China is not as popular as many western and African NGOs and media claim to be. He believed, the perception that “hundreds of millions” of “Chinese middle class” are demanding ivory is definitely an overstatement. According to his estimation, potential ivory buyers are probably less than 1% of the Chinese population. Most Chinese never see ivory in their daily life, not to mention purchasing ivory. This is one of the reasons why some Chinese feel western media over glorify Chinese ivory market. However, Gao also noted that given the 1.4 billion Chinese population, even a tiny percentage can mean a large demand, and can exert far-reaching impacts.
In Gao’s view, it is true that some western NGOs and media know little about China’s domestic ivory trade and use inaccurate information in their advocacy campaigns, as some Chinese officials have pointed out and expressed concerns about the counterproductive impacts of exaggerating the demand. But it is also true that China bears inescapable responsibility for the elephant poaching problem, since the striking contrast between ivory prices in China and in Africa has made ivory smuggling and poaching very lucrative. However, quite often, Chinese actors and the western and African actors are simply talking past each other, misperceiving the knowledge, views, intentions, and constrains of the other side. The continuing unconstructive polemics reinforce the conflicting differences, creating mistrust, and preventing a broad and effective coalition which is urgently needed. This phenomenon is not uncommon in many other issues pertinent to the environmental and social implications of China’s rising and going out.

A gap-bridging ivory trip
As a Chinese conservationist with extensive field experience in China and Africa, Gao was able to sense the different cultural outlooks about the issue of elephant conservation and international ivory trafficking. He strived to maintain his role as an independent observer and participant, and he was dedicated to use his unique position, as well as his knowledge and skills, to help different actors achieve a more comprehensive and contextual understanding of the elephant poaching problem and associated conflicts. He believed it is the responsibility of a policy scientist to “meld” people’s different perspectives to develop a shared view of goals, problems, and solutions. On the basis of such a common ground, he believed an effective international cooperation for a viable future for African elephants may become possible. “It is really challenging but definitely not insurmountable”, he added.
Gao said, the call for more data, more research, or more “evidence-based” conservation is insufficient. Ultimately, it is about people’s different perspectives and values. What is needy but so far receives little attention is the creation of new social arenas where these different perspectives can honestly and genuinely interact, compromise, and integrate. It is out of this conviction that Gao decided to launch a multi-cultural trip to the ivory trade centers in China. Two young Kenyan conservation professionals, Resson and Chris, are going to join him in the trip from June 7 to June 17. Resson is an Oxford graduate working for Save The Elephants as project officer overseeing their elephant conservation programs in Samburu. Chris speaks Chinese and he works for the Hands Off Our Elephants campaign initiated by WildlifeDirect. Both of them are going to participate in the trip as concerned individuals. They are going to visit Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Xiamen, Quanzhou, Fuzhou, and Shanghai, and share their enthusiasm for elephant conservation with the Chinese public, media, students, and Chinese conservation community.
By bringing passionate African conservationists to China, Gao hoped this trip can help the Chinese become more aware of the elephant poaching problem and what it means to African people. It was also his hope that this trip can create an opportunity for the Chinese civil society groups to engage in global conservation issues relevant to China. He dreamed to create a China-Africa Conservation Fellowship to sustain the communication and cooperation between conservation NGOs based in China and Africa, and he was eager to work together with like-mined people to make it happen.
In the end, he told me he is going to embark on a new adventure in the Himalayas after the ivory trip. I was shocked, and so did his many friends at hearing his decision of giving up great opportunities in Africa and returning to the starting point where he left two years ago. But he knew he had come a long way, and he knew clearly where he is going to. Wherever he goes, I am sure he will always remember his Tibetan monk friend’s teaching: how much time do you spend on yourself, and how much time do you live for the mankind and the world?

About the author
Qiangyi (Joy) Zhuang is a young Chinese journalist based in New York City. She currently works as an editor in Sinovision. She also freelances for many Chinese newspaper and magazines, writing about political and environmental issues in the U.S. and China. She is the chief-editor of CAPE China. She graduated from Syracuse University where she majored in International Relations, concentrating on NGO management. As a Chinese citizen, Joy is particularly interested in Chinese civil society and stays connected with many Chinese NGOs. Please contact her by emailing to [email protected].

CAPE is providing full support to amplify the positive influence of the China-Kenya ivory trip Gao initiated. CAPE is a Chinese organization dedicated to helping Chinese youth expand their worldviews and discover their potentials by encouraging and empowering them to become change-makers. CAPE represents Community, Accelerator, Progressive, and Entrepreneurship. CAPE aims to become a community of change-makers with progressive ideas and entrepreneurship. By providing supporting services and participatory media platforms, CAPE facilitates communications, social connections as well as meaningful actions among CAPERs.