Consumer Demand for Elephant Ivory Remains in Decline, WWF’s Fifth Annual Survey in China Finds

The longest-running annual research of elephant ivory consumers in China -- the major market for ivory before the country banned the trade at the end of 2017 -- finds that consumer demand for ivory remains on a downward trajectory.

Beijing, China – World Wildlife Fund (WWF), in collaboration with research organization GlobeScan, has conducted the largest elephant ivory consumer survey – 2,000 people in 15 cities – for five consecutive years. This annual survey is the largest assessment of changes in attitudes to ivory consumption, purchasing rates and intention to purchase, as well as awareness of the Chinese ivory ban over time. The study has found that demand for ivory continues at low rate since the ivory ban, though with a slight uptick in 2021.

WWF’s fifth annual survey, Demand under the Ban – China Ivory Consumption Research 2021, found:

  • Ivory buying remains in decline. Self-reported purchases of elephant ivory in the past 12 months have increased from 2020 to 2021 (from 12 percent to 15 percent) but remain lower than 2019 levels (17%) and less than half of the 2017 pre-ban level (31%). A similar trend was observed in the intention to purchase ivory in the future, which has increased slightly in 2021 but remains lower than any year except 2020.

  • Even the most committed ivory buyers report buying less. Among the identified buyer segments, the proportion of Diehard Buyers has grown slightly from 8 percent in 2020 to 11 percent in 2021. Their past-12-month purchases have decreased to the lowest level since 2017, with just 45 percent reporting that they bought ivory in the past 12 months, and those intending to buy in the future (before the ban was mentioned in the survey) continues to drop to 73 percent in 2021.

  • Public awareness of the legality of ivory trade remains the same. The same as last year, 88 percent of participants in 2021 believe that the trading of ivory in China is illegal, even though the spontaneous mention of the 2017 ivory ban has remained low, at 3 percent. The prompted recognition of the ivory ban has increased from 40 percent in 2020 to 44 percent in 2021.

  • Regular Overseas Travelers, one of the most determined ivory consumer segments, reached their lowest stated intention to buy ivory since 2017, both before and after the ban was mentioned. Although international travel was difficult in the past year, 27 percent of total participants have travel plans when it is possible again.

A small rebound has been seen in ivory purchase as well as intention to purchase ivory in the future, but these metrics remain lower than 2019 levels, despite the easing of many COVID-19 restrictions in China over the past 12 months. The easing of these restrictions was expected to create an increase in ivory purchase and changes in ivory sales will need to be carefully monitored as the world reopens post-COVID.

The segment size of Diehard Buyers in 2021 remains low after continuous behavior change campaigns by WWF and public awareness efforts by other conservation groups. The survey also assessed the long-tail effects of a targeted social media campaign, starring Chinese cultural celebrity Ma Weidu, launched in 2020. Two-thirds of respondents who planned to buy ivory said they changed their mind after learning about the laws and seeing the Ma Weidu campaign. And Regular Overseas Travelers reached their lowest-ever stated intention to buy ivory after the ban was mentioned. The findings indicate that consistent public awareness efforts around the n ivory ban should be sustained.

“Having five years’ worth of data about ivory buyers in China gives us deep insights into consumer interests and motivations,” said Jan Vertefeuille, senior advisor, advocacy, at WWF. “It’s clear that combining broad public education efforts about the illegality and devastation of the elephant ivory trade with targeted campaigns aimed directly at buyers has a measurable impact on ivory purchasing among even the most determined consumer groups.”