Making the Chinese ban a real turning point in the elephant poaching crisis means closing the remaining markets in Asia and stamping out consumer demand, says Cheryl Lo, wildlife crime manager for WWF-Hong Kong. So as WWF continues to work with other governments in the region to ban ivory sales, they are also focusing intently on the root of the problem: demand.
In a bid to successfully reduce elephant ivory demand, WWF is taking a new approach to ivory consumers. Past efforts have focused on raising awareness of the problem, urging people and companies not to buy or sell elephant ivory, and making people aware of the Chinese ban. WWF now wants to go deeper: to get inside the heads of consumers to figure out what drives their desire to buy ivory.
“The approach is refreshing because the key challenge is that we often don’t understand consumers and why they purchase ivory or other illegal wildlife trade products,” says Naomi Doak, head of conservation programs at The Royal Foundation, which leads United For Wildlife, a collaboration of seven nonprofits—including WWF—that aims to end illegal wildlife trade. “We have to address demand if we are ever going to truly tackle the poaching of elephants for ivory.”
In 2016, WWF teamed up with a psychosocial researcher to produce a guide to understanding and undermining the cultural and social roots of consumer desire for ivory. In 2017, WWF partnered with wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC and consumer research firm GlobeScan to study the ivory consumption patterns of more than 2,000 people across 15 Chinese cities.
“It’s a very new space, this demand reduction work based on consumer analysis and research,” says Jan Vertefeuille, who is leading the initiative for WWF-US. WWF is wading into social marketing and behavioral change research, employing tactics usually used by large marketing companies. The model has been adopted successfully by the public health sector to tackle issues like reducing smoking, but it has only recently been applied to illegal wildlife consumption. The team has even commissioned the first “social listening” analysis about elephant ivory done for WWF, from a Chinese firm that tracks trends and buzz across public social media platforms.
Among the consumer findings that are helping shape WWF’s outreach: The people most opposed to buying elephant ivory were often men between the ages of 51 and 60, with lower-than-average incomes, living in large cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. In contrast, diehard buyers—those who had previously purchased ivory and who were likely to continue doing so despite the ban—were more likely to be females with medium-to-high incomes who lived in smaller Chinese cities.
The study showed that elephant ivory attracts these women for a number of reasons: It is rare and beautiful, it carries cultural significance, it makes a good gift. There were other drivers as well. “Ivory is a status symbol,” says Lo, referring to the product that people sometimes call “white gold.” It’s a luxury product that people use to flaunt their wealth, she explains.
This is played out in Hong Kong’s shops, where more than 300 traders hold licenses allowing them to sell ivory goods legally. All Hong Kong stores visited during the study were located on or close to busy shopping streets. Some were set up like expensive jewelry shops with ivory items carefully displayed, while others were run like sundry shops with goods crammed onto shelves. But all the shops had one thing in common: steep prices.
It’s because of this that China’s rising middle class began to look to elephant ivory as a good place to park their money a decade or so ago, says Vertefeuille. “Ivory never goes bad, right? So it’s something you can invest in long term, something that can be seen as a smart way to spend your money, and something you can show off too,” she explains. “It’s a collector’s mentality, like high-end art.”