A Young Chinese Conservationist Discusses His Country’s Role in the Ivory Trade
Christina Russo, A Voice for Elephants, National Geographic
Gao Yufang, 26, is a Chinese researcher and conservationist who graduated last month with a masters from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
At Yale, Gao focused his studies on the ivory trade, with emphasis on the varied, sometimes conflicting understanding about the Chinese role in it. This, he believes, creates obstacles to stopping the slaughter of African elephants.
During the past two years Gao has conducted research in Kenya, Botswana, Tanzania, Hong Kong, and mainland China and analyzed nearly 3,000 Chinese news articles, as well as a large volume of statistical data on the Chinese ivory market.
Last December, at the invitation of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Botswana government, he spoke as a youth ambassador at the African Elephant Summit in Botswana.
This month, Gao will be returning to China and hosting two African conservationists—Resson Kantai and Christopher Kiarie, also in their 20s—on a tour of China’s ivory markets.
Russo: Tell me about your forthcoming trip to China.
Gao: The three of us are going to Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Xiamen, Quanzhou, Fuzhou, and Shanghai. These are the main ivory trading centers in China. We’re going to visit these cities and talk to the general public, the Chinese media, and Chinese conservation groups about elephant conservation. We hope to create a China-Africa conservation fellowship.
Do you think youth are particularly important in this conversation?
Many people, even in the Chinese conservation community, are not participating in elephant conservation or talking about the ivory trade. Because of the lack of participation from Chinese civil society, there’s lots of misinformation about the Chinese ivory trade. Most of the ivory researchers are not Chinese.
My generation—the youth generation—is the most active group in Chinese society. With this trip, we are trying to create the opportunity for youth to participate, because actually they’re really keen and energetic and enthusiastic about elephant conservation when they learn about it. If we provide them the opportunity, they will take it.
What led you to study the ivory trade while you were at Yale?
When I came to Yale in September 2012, everyone was talking about ivory trade. As a Chinese in the U.S. who understood how the conservation community in China works, I was seeing a great gap in understanding the ivory trade. I felt that people were—and are—talking past each other. So I got curious: What is really going on here? And this curiosity motivated me to take on the ivory trade project.
What did you notice about the way China, the U.S., and Africa “spoke” to each other about the trade and the poaching crisis?
What I found is one of the major obstacles for solving this elephant poaching problem is that each party has a very different view about the motivations and constraints of the other parties.
What are some of the misperceptions from Africa’s perspective about China?
Africa’s perspective is influenced by the West’s perspective. Many African conservationists have never been to China, and what they know about the ivory trade is usually from the news media or Western international conservation organizations.
In this Western narrative, most people believe elephant poaching is caused by Chinese demand for ivory. Also, that China’s economic development has created a large middle class and this middle class buys ivory for social status.
Is this true?
If you say hundreds of millions of Chinese middle class [people] are demanding ivory, this is an exaggeration of the ivory market in China.
The majority of the Chinese never see ivory in daily life. In my research, I estimate that over 99 percent of Chinese never buy ivory, and the potential ivory buyers are less than one percent of the Chinese population.
The problem is that China has a very large population, so even a small percentage can have a great impact. Ivory is a tiny industry in China, and Chinese government officials say they’re worried about the counterproductive impacts of this exaggeration. But it is also true that China does bear an inescapable responsibility in the trade.
You have found that this concept of the “middle class” itself is somewhat misguided. You explain it’s more specific than that, and the primary ivory buyers are the baofahu or tuhao.
Yes, the Western media and conservation organizations talk about the middle class, but it is actually more specific. From a typical Chinese perception, the baofahu and tuhao are the major buyers of ivory. The charactersistics of the baofahu or tuhao are that they are very rich—but also very uneducated—and they want to show off their social status.
This is still not the whole picture, because the ivory market in China is very diverse. Attributing the problem to baofahu underestimates ivory consumption, while attributing the problem to [the] middle class overestimates the ivory demand. The truth is in the middle.
Photograph by Robert Sutcliffe/Elephants Without Borders
Please talk about the ivory markets in China.
There are three types: the white, the black, and the gray.
The white market is the legal ivory market. The black market is the illegal market. The gray market [is] where the legality is uncertain.
So the white market consists of 145 ivory shops and ivory repair outlets and 37 ivory factories. Most of these facilities are located in the eastern part of China, especially Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing. And the number of these legal ivory facilities has increased from 40 in 2004 to 182 in 2014.
Many Western NGOs and media have already talked about the legal market. And some researchers and journalists went to investigate the legal market and found a lot of loopholes and violations of the ivory identification and registration policy.
The black market takes two forms, and the first is the physical market. The other is the online market. In the past few years, the Chinese government has tightened control of the physical black market. So what I found is that many ivory dealers are now shifting their business to online trading.
One of the main forms of online trading is the Baidu Post Bar. Ivory traders will sell the ivory by using some [other] word—they don’t say it’s “ivory” but will say it’s “white plastic,” for example. Every day people visit the bar, and the illegal ivory traders post photos of raw ivory or worked ivory. And they ask potential consumers to contact them and communicate on Wechat, which is the Chinese version of WhatsApp. The illegal dealers will then send the ivory to the buyers.
Is this bar internationally used, or just domestically?
The bar is an Internet platform, so everyone around the world, as long as they can read Chinese, can go to the website. But the trade is within China. Chinese dealers sell the illegal ivory to Chinese buyers. Some dealers have direct connections with middlemen in Africa.
Tell me about the gray market.
The gray market is the live auction market of ivory art works. I feel this is very important. Sometimes, when talking about the auction market in China, many conservationists, especially English-speaking conservationists, confuse this with the online auction. This is a live, off-line market.
Why is this off-line market so important?
This is where the big money is. In the gray market, the current ivory registration and identification system doesn’t distinguish antique ivory from new ivory. But the ivory collectors do distinguish antique and new ivory. And antique ivory is the most expensive.
According to the Chinese ivory control policy, all ivory in China can only be sold in the white market, the legal market. But because the auction market is a very new thing, it is not well regulated.
How does this gray market affect the ivory trade and poaching?
The trade trend of ivory at the off-line market started to increase around 2006, mushroomed after 2009, and then peaked in 2011. After 2011 it suddenly diminished.
Before 2011, the trend of the ivory gray market is significantly correlated to elephant poaching in Africa. The price can be incredibly high in the gray market. The Chinese media, when they talk about the ivory market, usually [mean] the auction market. So those ivory carvings that achieve an incredibly high price bring lots of attention from the media, and this in turn increases the perception that ivory is a good investment. People anticipate that if they buy an ivory carving at this moment, in the future it’s going to make a lot of money.
Another step in my research is to understand the conditions that caused the different trends in the three markets. May I explain this?
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.
This art market is related to the gray market, because the auction market is an important channel for liquidation [of] investment[s]. The arts investment boom increased the value of ivory as an investment alternative that has driven ivory demand in China.
But in 2011 the authorities imposed an ivory auction off-line ban. A lot of Chinese news articles talked about this ban, but the English media rarely talk about this. This is important: Because of this ban, the ivory gray market suddenly diminished, and the [price] increase of ivory slowed down.
Some groups in China are now lobbying to drop the ban. The problem is that because it’s poorly regulated, new ivory can enter the market and can be fabricated to look antique.
In your research, did you come to understand whether Chinese buyers of ivory know—or care—that elephants are being killed for the their ivory?
Professional ivory investors know a lot about ivory, and they know a lot about elephant poaching. They distinguish the different types of ivory—they say it’s yellow, white, or blood ivory, and they have different explanations for each kind.
Some of these professional investors openly say that blood ivory is from [a] poached elephant. And the ivory was got when the elephant was still alive. Of all the kinds of ivory, blood ivory is the most expensive. So they know exactly where the ivory comes from.
But the general public, who simply buy ivory because of, say, its esthetic value, I believe they don’t know the ivory came from poached elephants. They simply consider ivory the same as other beautiful jewelry, like jade.
So let me get this straight. From everything you are telling me, Chinese professional investors and art collectors are the most influential group driving the trade in your opinion?
But we must distinguish between collectors and investors. Investors care about money. Collectors also care about cultural value and esthetic value. And the collectors, some of them are really good people. They want ivory from legal source[s]. The collectors can be very law abiding.
When you graduated from Yale, you decorated your hat in honor of Mountain Bull, an iconic Kenyan elephant who was recently killed for his ivory.
At Yale we have a tradition of decorating our hats. People know me as “the elephant guy.” So I put an elephant on my head, and at that time Mountain Bull was killed.
I feel I have the responsibility to help elephant conservation in Africa. I’ve received a lot of support from many, many people, and it’s those people, the ones who are motivated by their genuine love for the elephants, that most encourage me.
I realize this problem is very complicated. Many people here in the U.S. care a lot about [the] elephant because of its intrinsic value and because they feel a moral responsibility or they want to protect [it] for the next generation. But Africans may have different concerns—about livelihood and issues about development and well-being. You cannot simply impose your own values and ask them to have the same feeling you do.
So what I’m trying to do is to listen to the different actors, whether U.S. rich people or local African people who are suffering from conflict with elephants and must think about next meals or the Chinese who care about culture. I try to understand all this, and how we can bring people together to find common ground. I really believe ensuring a viable future for elephants is the common interest for the global community.