The majority of people who buy products made from ivory say they would support banning the sale of ivory.
That conflicting sentiment is one of several surprising findings in a new international survey published Wednesday by the National Geographic Society and GlobeScan.
The study represents an effort to better understand what motivates people in the United States and Asian countries to continue purchasing ivory, despite years of efforts to raise awareness about how the illegal trade is fueling the mass slaughter of elephants.
This tragedy, however, can’t compete with the allure of “white gold”—especially among young fashionistas in low- to middle-income brackets who see ivory as a way to project an image of wealth and social status, the survey finds.
“There’s a clear disconnect between individuals saying, ‘I'm going to buy it’ and ‘I support enhanced regulations of the ivory trade,’” says Terry Garcia, the chief science and exploration officer for the National Geographic Society. “Some of it is just rationalization; they've managed to construct an argument in their own minds as to why it's no harm.”
While buyers of ivory express genuine concerns about cruelty towards animals, less than one-third of them believe that elephants are “very endangered.” Others feel that buying small pieces of ivory isn’t going to have a huge impact on elephant populations.
In the United States and the Philippines, concerns about the plight of elephants are offset by the perception that governments ultimately will make sure the animals don’t become extinct. By contrast, Vietnamese believe that the elephant population is declining so rapidly that they had better buy as much ivory as possible before the supply disappears.
The bottom line: If people want ivory, someone will find a way supply it. And, as long as ivory is available, people will continue to buy it.
“We've got to begin addressing the issue of demand and how you suppress it,” says Garcia. “How do you make it socially unacceptable to purchase illegal ivory”?
Put another way, the fate of elephants will depend, in part, on whether people can be convinced that ivory is uncool.
The international community banned the ivory trade in 1989, and for a while, it worked, stemming the drastic decline of the elephant population, which had dropped from 1.3 million to around 600,000 over the prior decade. But since 2007, large-scale poaching has resumed, and the elephant population has fallen as low as 419,000.
The reason? “Legal” ivory found a way back onto the global market. African countries were granted special permission to auction stockpiles of seized tusks worth millions of dollars.
In the United States, regulations allow ivory to be legally imported into the country as hunting trophies and permit pre-ban ivory to be traded across state lines. The Chinese government allows a portion of ivory from its own stockpile to be sold each year.
Traffickers take advantage of the legal trade to launder their illegal wares, which are then presented to buyers as legitimate products. And most African countries don’t have the resources to fight poachers.
The good news is that there’s wide public support for cracking down on the ivory trade. In fact, both China and the United States recently announced new laws that, if enacted, could significantly limit the amount of ivory in circulation.
The bad news is that, like drugs, if there is someone willing to buy, there is always someone willing to sell. That's why policymakers and conservation groups are now targeting the demand side of the problem.
A crucial component of that strategy is gaining a deeper understanding of who buys ivory and why.
GlobeScan spent eight months conducting surveys, in-depth interviews, and focus groups in the five countries in which demand for ivory is known to be concentrated: China, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and the United States. The study identified 22 percent of respondents as “likely buyers”—people who intend to purchase ivory within the next three years and have the money to do so.
An additional 28 percent were identified as “at-risk buyers,” who would buy ivory if they could afford it. Given that the middle class is growing in some of the countries surveyed, some of these people could become likely buyers in the near future.
Some of the motivations among ivory aficionados are consistent across all the countries that were surveyed—most notably, the belief that ivory is the “perfect gift,” fueled by the perception that it’s “rare, precious, pure, beautiful, exotic, and importantly, that it confers status to not only the receiver but the giver of the gift,” notes the study.
But there are specific drivers of demand that resonate more strongly in certain countries than others. A sizeable portion of people in China (44 percent) and the Philippines (39 percent) view ivory as a token of good luck, compared to smaller numbers in Thailand (25 percent) and the United States (17 percent).
And in some countries, reverence and respect for elephants imbues ivory with perceived qualities of rarity and beauty that contribute to its widespread appeal—which, in turn, leads to the slaughter of yet more elephants.
Sending a Message
The takeaway lesson from the survey is that advocacy focused on the plight of elephants can sustain and increase public support for new measures to restrict the ivory trade—but curbing demand will require messages fine-tuned to resonate with ivory purchasers.
Advocacy efforts on other issues have demonstrated how important it is to get inside the heads of target audiences. In the United States, the “Truth” campaign to dissuade young people from smoking was highly effective because it didn’t rely on trite slogans (such as “Think, don’t smoke”) and traditional messages about health threats. Marketing research revealed that teens were already aware of these hazards and tended to view smoking as an act of empowerment and rebellion. The Truth campaign reversed that perception by showing young smokers the extent to which they were being manipulated by tobacco companies.
The campaign against the ivory trade has already begun targeting its messages toward buyers. Ivory crushes of seized products are a dramatic way not only to demonstrate a country’s commitment to fight illegal trafficking but also to show how individual purchases add up to a larger problem. Similarly creative strategies will be needed to counter perceptions that ivory is a fashionable, exotic status symbol.
“It will be interesting to see what kinds of arguments will work in suppressing demand,” says Garcia, who believes one approach would be making more people aware of how the illegal ivory trade is funneling large amounts of money into criminal syndicates and terrorist groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army. "You don't care about the animals, how about supporting terrorism?," says Garcia.
“What surprised me to some extent was that the potential buyers were skewing younger,” says John Calvelli, executive vice president of public affairs at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “But it also gives me hope, because that’s an audience that is relatively wired, and I think we can get to them in many different ways.”
A Matter of Trust
Success will also depend on finding the right “influencers” to deliver these messages. In Japan, for instance, the popularity of ivory fell in the 1980s after the crown prince spoke out against it.
Of course, not every country has royalty—let alone royalty that are well-regarded by its citizens. But the National Geographic Society–GlobeScan survey compiled a ranking of the most trusted sources for information among ivory buyers. The top three are non-profit environmental organizations, scientists or academics, and family members or friends.
Those findings suggest a two-pronged strategy, relying on environmental organizations and scientists to deliver the top-down message, while reaching out to individuals at the grassroots level who will be able to influence the views of their peers.
“The way that this is going to change is through people to people, a friend telling a friend that it's not cool to buy ivory,” says Calvelli. “So, I think one of the ways we do that is by finding out who our supporters are and then giving them the tools and resources to educate others.”
Changing people’s beliefs on any topic is neither quick nor easy, but it will be essential if the international community hopes to end ivory trafficking. "To stop the poacher, the trader must also be stopped,” said Kenya’s president Daniel arap Moi in 1989. “And to stop the trader, the final buyer must be convinced not to buy ivory.”
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An elephant in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya stands tall among her herd.