September 2014, No. 2 Vol.LI, Illegal Wildlife Trade

Killing elephants for their ivory, slaughtering tigers for their pelts and bones, and fatally hacking the horns off rhinos have reached epidemic proportions in recent years.

Unfortunately, the bloody trail leads to Asia, particularly China and Viet Nam, where the demand and price for products from endangered species have sky-rocketed, propelled by fast-growing economies, an increase in purchasing power, the rising demand for rare animal parts to be used as ingredients in tonics, as “status symbols,” or investments, and the availability and accessibility of these products in the marketplace.

Although these endangered species are protected by international and domestic laws banning the trade in their parts and derivatives, loopholes and exceptions are actively created and exploited by those who benefit from commercial trade in wildlife.

While the State Council of China banned the buying, sale and use of tiger bone more than twenty years ago, large industrial tiger farms have emerged in the country with the sole purpose of farming tigers for the trade in their parts and products. Under pressure from commercial interest in these “tiger farms,” wildlife authorities issued licenses for wineries and taxidermists, giving their tacit approval for the commercial trade in tiger bone tonic wine and tiger pelts used for home décor.

Farming tigers for trade in their parts has revived a waning market interest in tiger products, thus further stimulating poaching. It costs as little as US $15 to kill a wild tiger compared to US $7,000 to farm an animal to maturity. This profit margin offers substantial incentives for poaching tigers in the wild. Since it is impossible to distinguish between farm-raised tigers and their wild counterparts from their bones and other parts, farming tigers for trade creates enormous difficulties for law enforcement, and provides opportunities to “launder” products made from wild tigers.

South Africa, home to 73 per cent of all wild rhinos worldwide, has seen rhino poaching escalate from 13 killed in 2007 to 1,004 in 2013. While international commercial trade in rhino horn is prohibited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), South Africa allows foreigners to hunt rhinos and ship the horns overseas as trophies. Taking advantage of this legal loophole, criminal gangs employ Thai and Vietnamese prostitutes to pose as big game hunters to obtain fake trophy hunting permits to smuggle horns from poached rhinos.

The repeated “one-off ” sales of elephant ivory whetted market appetite and created opportunities for criminals to sell illegally-obtained ivory under the cover of the legal market. In China, purchase of legal ivory from southern Africa in 2008 stimulated demand and prompted increased production to meet market needs. Limited availability of legal ivory from the stockpile sale sent ivory prices soaring, attracting more consumers who value ivory as an investment and covet it as “white gold.”

One ivory carving factory owner admitted: “The government-issued legal ivory can last me only one month of a year.” That means 91 per cent of the ivory that goes through the factory comes from illegal sources. To supply the illegal market with ivory from poached elephants was exactly what convicted smuggler Chen Zhong did. Under the guise of a government-approved license to carve legal ivory, Chen led a smuggling ring that trafficked 7.7 tonnes of ivory from Africa to China in 2011.

The “grey markets,” created by policies that fuel demand for wildlife products from “legal sources,” “limited trade” and “one-off sales,” have become the wildlife criminals’ dream come true. They allow for trade in wildlife products from all sources—legal and illegal—by mixing contraband with look-alike legal products.

Grey markets remove the stigma attached to wildlife product consumption, providing criminals with many more consumers than the black market. The latter, in fact, relies upon a limited number of law-breakers, while grey markets draw from the remaining 99.9 per cent of law-abiding consumers. Most people assume that illegal products are not easily obtained. They worry about the stigma attached to buying and using illegal items. On the “grey market,” where banned products are illegal in some cases and legal in others, consumers can easily become confused, mistaking availability for legality.

From poaching to trafficking to demand for endangered wildlife products, every link in the trade chain is causing horrific suffering to individual animals and tragically driving these endangered species closer to extinction.

A massive effort to reduce demand is underway to change consumer behaviour through culturally-appropriate and socially-motivating messages stigmatizing wildlife product consumption.

Take, for instance, the compelling image of an elephant mother and calf walking into the sunset on the Africa savannah. The calf very excitedly declares: “Mom, I have teeth.” The mother does not reply. The calf persists: “Mom, I have teeth now! Aren’t you happy I have teeth?”

Babies having teeth should bring joy to a mother. However, what does it mean to elephant families? Because of our unnecessary want of ivory, hundreds and thousands of elephants are killed. Buying equals Killing. Say “No” to Elephant Ivory.

These messages are part of a demand reduction campaign undertaken by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) to raise awareness about the origins of ivory. The word for ivory in Chinese is Xiang Ya, meaning “elephant teeth.” Unfortunately, this term gives people the impression that ivory, like human teeth, can fall out naturally. Based on a survey which found that 7 out of 10 Chinese did not know that ivory comes from dead elephants, and that 80 per cent would reject ivory if they knew it was linked to elephant death, IFAW has launched an advertising campaign, hoping that enlightened consumers would make an animal-friendly choice.

Since 2009, the “Say NO to Ivory” public awareness campaign has reached hundreds of millions of people thanks to many Chinese corporations, such as outdoor advertising giant JCDecaux, which provided in-kind support to place the ads in airports, railway stations, subway lines, and department stores across China.

The campaign has proved to not only raise awareness, but also has initiated changes in consumer behaviour. A young mother felt so ashamed for wearing an ivory bracelet that she rallied her friends and family on social media to reject ivory. One ivory carver pledged to replace elephant ivory with other materials. Educators touched by the ads incorporated the message into China’s National College Entrance Examination, which subsequently reached 9 million college applicants across the country. An ivory trader exposed the illegal ivory sales to the media, crediting the campaign for changing his heart and mind. In 2013, an independent assessment showed the campaign had penetrated 75 per cent of the urban market in China, reducing the consumer propensity to purchase ivory from 54 to 26 per cent.

In 2013, giant billboards with an image of a mother elephant with her calf, depicted next to an ivory bracelet linked to a handcuff, appeared in urban centres across China. It has served as a visual metaphor for the moral and legal ramifications of the ivory trade. As seen in Figure 1, the Chinese character on the ivory bracelet questions: “Status?”, while the character on the handcuff declares: “Sentence!”, with both characters pronounced in the same way: “You Xing.” In a market where legally obtained ivory is supplemented with contraband, the advertising reminds people that the trade could lead to prosecution.

To appeal to the conscience of the Chinese public, another ad shows mutilated Chinese characters, (see Figures 3-4) symbolizing the plight endangered species suffer at the hands of man. By removing one crucial stroke from the Chinese character representing an elephant, tiger, bear and human being respectively, the ad asks: “When we take the tusk out of elephants, the bone out of tigers, the gall bladder out of bears, what does that make of us? Are we merely beings with no humanity?”

“When the buying stops, the killing can too,” says actor Jackie Chan in a WildAid video aimed at discouraging consumers to obtain products from elephants, rhinos and tigers. However, the buying will not stop amid confusion caused by murky policies, contradictory laws, inconsistent law enforcement, regulations that fuel demand and grey markets that give criminals incentives for mixing contraband with legal goods.

Demand reduction efforts by non-governmental organizations can help eliminate ignorance, but cannot deter wildlife crimes driven by greed. Combating wildlife crime needs policy support. Only by combining clear and unambiguous laws, vigourous enforcement and meaningful penalties for violators can we change the high-profit, low-risk nature of wildlife crime. Making wildlife crime high-risk not only prevents illegal wildlife trade, but also stigmatizes it in the eyes of consumers.

Government trade bans have reduced demand and damaged markets. The zero tolerance policy against online wildlife trade adopted by many Chinese e-commerce companies has made online marketplaces unavailable for wildlife trade. Monitoring data shows that sites with trade bans have far fewer infringing listings than those without them. A government notice banning the auction of rhino horn, elephant ivory and tiger bone cut mainland China auction sales volume by nearly half in 2012. The government anti-corruption campaign prohibiting lavish banquets has reduced shark fin consumption.

The Premier of the People’s Republic of China, Li Keqiang, vowed to combat elephant poaching and ivory smuggling during his visit to Kenya. As a key consumer country, the most significant contribution that China can make to prevent illegal trade is closing down ALL ivory markets. Polls indicate overwhelming public support for the government ban on ivory trade to help stop elephant poaching in Africa. The most compelling reasons given by former ivory consumers for no longer making purchases include the universal ban on ivory trade and a strong commitment from a government leader to combat illegal ivory trade.

The Chinese look to their leaders for guidance. Recent historic government stances demonstrate China’s commitment to wildlife conservation, including the destruction of confiscated ivory stockpiles and re-interpretation of laws to make consumption of endangered species a punishable crime. Proposals from prominent Chinese citizens such as artist Yuan Xikun and basketball player Yao Ming, calling upon lawmakers to save the image of the country by ending ivory trade, have drawn overwhelming support in social media.

Two thousand years ago, Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zi may have been the first to advocate for ecological sustainability, adhering to a philosophical credo that pronounced the necessity for nature and humanity to exist in harmony. Today, we are facing the challenge once again. Will we say NO to the unsustainable commercial exploitation of wildlife? Will we be able to protect the many wild species and the ecosystems they support for this and future generations?


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Fischer, Carolyn (2002). The Complex Interactions of Markets for Endangered Species Products. Discussion Paper 20-21, Resources for the Future. Washington, DC (May).

Gratwicke, Brian and Others (2008). Attitudes toward Consumption and Conservation of Tigers in China. PLoS ONE, Vol. 3, No. 7 (July).