Although the international commercial trade in ivory was banned in 1989 through CITES, moving the African elephant from Appendix II to Appendix I, ivory continues to be traded at an alarming scale. Illegal international ivory trade has tripled since 1998.
In 2013, to help prevent further elephant poaching, the Clinton Global Initiative gathered key conservation and scientific organizations to develop the Partnership to Save Africa's Elephants. As part of this effort, the National Geographic Society partnered with GlobeScan to carry out qualitative and quantitative research in five key ivory markets—the USA, China, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam—to understand better what drives ivory consumption so as to inform approaches to reduce demand. The results of the study, Reducing Demand for Ivory: An International Study, were published in August 2015 and are available at http://press.nationalgeographic.com/files/2015/09/NGS2015_Final-August-11-RGB.pdf.
The primary objective of the research was to understand ivory consumption within the deeper social norms, cultures, traditions and dynamics of influence of the five countries. Over a 7-month period in 2014, 5,212 people were interviewed in person and online. Statistical analyses included: driver analyses to identify the most influential predictors of intent to purchase ivory; path analysis to uncover the interaction of perception of ivory and social values; and segmentation analyses to find attitudinal, demographic and behavioural indicators, to identify the variations between subgroups.
Ivory consumers in each country were grouped according to their stated interest in purchasing ivory and their self-reported financial ability to do so. Five groups were then identified according to the following criteria: (1) likely buyers, (2) at risk, (3) unlikely buyers, (4) constrained rejecters, and (5) firm rejecters. Likely buyers represented 22% of the consumers surveyed across the five countries. In China and the Philippines this group encompassed just over one-third of those surveyed, and in the USA, Vietnam and Thailand, almost 15% of survey respondents were likely buyers.
Likely buyers described themselves as fashionable, social and religious. Their purchase decisions are motivated by a desire for products that convey financial and social status. As a result, they are often drawn to ivory because of what ivory ownership suggests to others about them. The most powerful source of intent to buy ivory is its perceived suitability for gifting. Related to this is the feeling of happiness that ivory imparts on both the giver and the receiver as well as the status that ivory projects on both, amplified by gift giving.
The study shows that support for government action to ban or limit the trade in ivory is widespread in all five countries, even among ivory owners and those who express interest in buying ivory. Yet, their desire for personal consumption of ivory may conflict with their support for regulation. Increasing support for regulation does not, therefore, appear to directly result in reduced demand for ivory. Advocacy work focused on threats to elephants may further strengthen support for government action, but this may not significantly alter the embedded social values that fuel demand.
Finally, the study found that non-profit environmental organizations, scientists and family and friends are the most trusted sources of information on issues related to ivory. The types of organizations that are currently working to reduce demand and facilitate regulatory changes are well positioned for impact.
Although there have been other studies that have examined ivory demand, this is the first study of which we are aware that looked across five key ivory consumption countries and analysed socio-economic drivers of ivory consumption. We hope that this research can inform methods to reduce ivory demand, including policy measures, grass-roots and social marketing campaigns, consumer-focused communications and country-specific approaches. We recognize that solutions must go beyond consumer behaviour change to incorporate and address legality, corruption, law enforcement, intelligence sharing, education, capacity building and coordination, transportation and logistics, economics, livelihoods and governance. At the same time, what ultimately drives the illegal killing of elephants and the highly commercialized and criminalized trafficking of ivory are socio-economic cultural beliefs tied to the perceived value of ivory. We believe that the results of this research point to a need for transformational steps to decouple ivory and high status to make ivory purchasing socially and culturally unacceptable.