Most of what we hear about the ivory trade comes from Western NGOs often with an advocacy position to ban trade. So it is interesting to read this interview in National Geographic Magazine with 26 year old Chinese researcher Gao Yufang who recently graduated with a Masters from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. His studies at Yale focused on the ivory trade
What is striking about the interview with Yufang is his detailed knowledge of the complex characteristics of ivory demand in China. Understanding this consumer demand is a necessary first step before advocating policy responses.
Yufang’s research “varied, sometimes conflicting understanding about the Chinese role in it. This, he believes, creates obstacles to stopping the slaughter of African elephants.” In particular, he has doubts about the assertions of Western NGOs that the CITES one-off sale of ivory “stimulated” demand and thus led to the current poaching crisis.
“Many conservation groups, animal welfare groups, and the media believe the 2009 CITES one-off sale stimulated ivory demand. This is the perception of many reports. But I’m not satisfied with this. To understand what caused ivory demand in China, we need to understand why Chinese buy ivory. We need to understand the different values of ivory in Chinese perception.
Chinese society has attached many values to ivory. The economic value of carved ivory as a good investment is the first. The second is the social value of ivory. The third is the cultural value of ivory as a traditional art. Ivory carving in 2006 was officially designated as a national intangible cultural heritage. The fourth value is the esthetic value—those who believe ivory is very beautiful, the necklaces and bangles they think are very pretty. The fifth is the religious value, such as ivory statues and guru beads, Buddhist ivory pendants, and statues of Quan Yin. The last is the medical value. Some people believe that if you wear ivory bangles, for example, it’s good for your health.
It’s also important that we understand the social change that promoted some of these values. I identified two trends.
The first was the preservation of traditional culture. In 2002 the Chinese authorities started to recognize the importance of protecting traditional culture, and there were lots of initiatives launched to protect this, and ivory carving is just one. The carvers seized on this opportunity, and ivory carving became an official national intangible cultural heritage in 2006. This increased the cultural value of ivory, and it’s one reason the authorities would like to have the ivory trade.
The second, and most important, trend is the boom of arts investment in China, especially after 2008 and 2009, because around this time the stock market and real estate market didn’t perform as well as expected. So people started to invest in many forms of arts and antiques and collectibles, and this included furniture, paintings, antique books, and ivory.”