Lucy Skrine, 11, was walking through the bustling streets of Hong Kong a few months ago with fellow animal activists, holding signs in Chinese and English that read: “Say No to Ivory.”
“There was one mainland Chinese that came around, and she said, ‘Why can’t we buy ivory?’ ” the sixth-grader recalled. Lucy explained that poachers had to kill the elephant to extract the tusks.
“When she learned this, she was like, ‘What? I thought they fell out of the elephants,’ ” Lucy said.
That brief exchange illustrates the potential as well as the challenges for altering attitudes toward buying ivory in China, the world’s largest market. Lucy and other activists gathered about 64,000 petition signatures last fall calling for the destruction of 28 tons of seized ivory in Hong Kong, one of Asia’s most sophisticated and wealthiest cities. Some officials initially resisted, but after the Chinese government crushed six tons last month in neighboring Guangdong province, Hong Kong approved a plan to liquidate its massive stockpile over the next two years.
“I was really surprised,” says Christina Seigrist, 9, who also worked on the petition drive. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ ”
Lucy thinks Hong Kong officials decided to burn the ivory because they were embarrassed.
“China is the major international black market for ivory,” says Lucy, speaking in her family’s apartment overlooking Hong Kong’s Repulse Bay. “If they can manage to destroy their ivory, it kind of shames the Hong Kong people.”
Last month’s decision follows recent ivory crushings in the U.S. and France. Alex Hofford, a program director for the conservation group Hong Kong for Elephants, says destroying the stockpiles should help slow the furious pace of poaching in Africa and dampen demand, especially in China.
The logic is based in part on a poll by National Geographic and the International Fund for Animal Welfare in which 1 in 5 Chinese said they would stop buying ivory if their leaders denounced it. By committing to destroy ivory, officials in China and Hong Kong are making that statement, says Hofford, a professional photographer by trade.
“Governments are leading by example,” he says. “So, we think there’s a large segment of the population that will maybe be thinking twice about buying it.”
Ivory has long been a status symbol in China. Rising incomes are spurring even greater demand, and many wealthy Chinese are buying ivory statues and carvings as investments. Predicting behavior in such an opaque market, though, is tricky.
Initially, Hofford says, the move to destroy so much ivory appears to have driven up prices by about 10 percent in Hong Kong.
“We think that’s just a knee-jerk reaction from the trade,” Hofford says, “but what hasn’t really translated into the market yet is the drop in demand due to less buyers. We expect that to come through in the next six months.”
Brendan Moyle, who teaches economics and wildlife management at Massey University in New Zealand, says destroying ivory to drive down demand doesn’t make a lot of economic sense, and that the most likely impact is none at all. He thinks some governments are deciding to crush ivory so they can at least appear to be trying to reduce the slaughter.
Moyle adds that recent data on seizures and sales suggest dealers are hoarding ivory for the long haul.
“That means they are very confident that sales of ivory are going to stay up for years to come,” says Moyle. “They are probably a lot more informed about the market than we are and that’s actually a frightening prospect.”
In the meantime, organizations such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare continue to try to educate Chinese consumers by various means, including billboards. One in Shanghai’s financial district depicts a handcuff made of ivory. The message: Buying supports crime. Shi Yuan, a young professional who opposes the ivory trade, thinks the ad campaign could help.
“When ordinary consumers are about to purchase ivory, they may have a second thought,” says Shi, 28, who wears a long red coat and black leather boots.
But Shi says the factors driving ivory sales in China, including the desire to flaunt wealth, are powerful.
“Destroying ivory will definitely push up the price of the existing stockpile,” she says. “For those who have to have ivory products, they will still throw around a lot of money to get them, because the higher the price, the more those people can show off their status.”