When it comes to buying ivory, China is number one. And that's become a source of national shame.
To counter this, some of China's most admired celebrities have joined anti-ivory campaigns, including basketball giant Yao Ming, piano virtuoso Lang Lang, and billionaire internet entrepreneur Jack Ma. Organizing the groundswell is a host of international conservation groups, like WildAid and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
IFAW's Grace Ge Gabriel says elephants are victims of China's breakneck economic growth, and some poorly thought-through policies. "Ivory has always been coveted as a status symbol. But in the past it was the purview of a privileged few,” she says.
That changed during China's flush go-go years in the 2000s, when the economy was growing by more than 10 percent a year. Then, in 2008, China was granted a one-time-only sale of 62 tons of stockpiled ivory. This legal ivory sale created a cover for the black market. Demand skyrocketed and smuggling soared.
“The ivory price dramatically increased,” Gabriel says. “More people coveted it. They felt it not only brought status, it has also become an investment.” Ivory sellers told buyers the price could triple overnight.
Meanwhile, conspicuous consumption was en vogue in China. Gifting rare animal products was trendy — as was bribing with them.
When official delegations from China arrived in Africa, the price of ivory would spike. Back at home in China, ivory started appearing among loot when corrupt officials were busted. And some wealthy Chinese citizens literally surrounded themselves with it, lining the walls of their private clubs with ivory carvings.
But this year, things changing.
In February, the government announced a symbolic one-year ban on imported ivory.
Then, in the spring, government officials, foreign diplomats, and environmentalists gathered in Beijing for an ivory crush — the second to be held in China.
As 1,500 pounds of precious but illicit ivory was tossed onto a conveyer belt and pulverized, Minister of the State Forestry Administration Zhao Shucong made the pledge environmentalists have long been pushing for. He said China would eventually end all ivory sales — though he didn't say when.
Market watchers say there was no immediate impact on ivory prices. But the hope is this will send a message to speculators: It’s time to give up on what they call “white gold” — it will soon become worthless white dust.