Into the Black- The Chinese Illegal Ivory Market

By Brendan Moyle 26/06/2014

One of the most important black-markets for ivory is now in China.  This creates a bit of a problem.  China is big, it is a really big country.  And it isn’t as open as most Western countries.  So doing research there can quickly get mired in political obstacles. Or logistical. So even after several years of unsustainable poaching, there hasn’t been a lot of good information coming out of China.  There’s been a lot of guesswork going on.

So some point to the rising Chinese middle-class as the driver behind demand for illegal ivory.  It sounds plausible. There’s probably a core of truth to it. But in terms of actual insights, well, it doesn’t really help.  As Chinese researcher Gao points out, 99% of Chinese aren’t in the market for ivory.  When the driver of demand doesn’t actually hold for 99% of them, you don’t really have any insights there.  Other than, you need to have money to be in the market to buy ivory.

The other problem is a lot of research is really anecdotal, but gets circulated often enough that it acquires an odd credibility.  It gets fascinating going back to the source of many of these.  For instance, the IFAW 2011 trip to Fuzhou, managed to visit two factories (I’ve managed 7).  One of the factory owners when asked said that business was great.  So good, that he couldn’t keep up with demand.  This became their proof of “insatiable demand” for ivory (IFAW 2012, p13)

So, what did they expect the guy to say?  Actually I’m really stressed because business isn’t as good as we hoped?” Especially in China where cultural factors come into play. There’s strong incentives to preserve ‘face’. As well as that lovely tendency to tell people what they think you want to hear. You can be pretty confident if business was struggling, your factory owner isn’t going to be telling strangers that.

What makes this even more bizarre, is that there was no attempt to corroborate this claim with any other factory.  And it was contradicted by the report of Vigne and Martin [1], in the same year in the same city.  They found that vendors in Fuzhou were unable to move their stock easily and many were getting out of the ivory-sale business.  It doesn’t look like demand here is insatiable at all. Maybe, the one factory owner used as the source for this, was just exaggerating to some strangers. Maybe we shouldn’t be basing conclusions on China on the word of one person?

So if we actually look at the distribution of surveys on the illegal market for ivory (Table), it starts to become clear that we’re a long way off having any comprehensive understanding of the black market

Table: Registered Factories and Retailers in China as of January 2014

Province Factories Retailers Surveyed since 2009b
Beijing 10 44 IFAW (2011), Moyle & Conrad (2013, 2014)
Fujian 7 3 IFAW (2011), Vigne and Martin (2011), Moyle and Conrad (2014)
Guangdong 6 24 EIA (2010) IFAW (2011), EIA, Vigne and Martin (2011), Moyle and Conrad
Jiangsu 6 10
Shanghai 3 15 IFAW (2011), Moyle and Conrad (2013)
Zhejiang 2 8
Tianjin 1 6
Heilongjiang 1 3
Guangxi 1 1
Liaoning 0 6
Hebei 0 4
Shanxi 0 4
Shandong 0 3
Anhui 0 2
Jiangxi 0 2
Yunnan 0 2
Shaanxi 0 2
Inner Mongolia 0 1
Henan 0 1
Hubei 0 1
Hunan 0 1
Chongqing 0 1
Sichuan 0 1


Now if we getting good quality information out of these reports, then that would be something.  Some are better than others.  But aside from my work, most have adopted what can be called the eyeball technique.  A small group of researchers (there’s limits to what you can get away with on a tourist visa in China) try to visit as many legal and illegal retailers as possible.  They try to memorise or collate the number of items for sale, the advertised prices and any other supporting information.

That hasn’t been so useful.  We know that many items that are even with the same category can vary in price by an order of magnitude.  Finding price changes over time with that spread is near impossible.  And even if we did, it doesn’t really tell us why the prices are moving. Is it supply or demand factors? Is is the market power of the sellers?  Is it a product of law enforcement or education?  The strategy of trying to everything is a consequence of rising demand might suit some NGOs, but for people wanting to curb this trade, we need more than that.

Mostly what we’ve discovered, is that there is illegal ivory items available for sale in China. Still.

Another problem with the eyeball technique is the researchers often get ‘made’ by the sellers.  They’re not locals, they may be foreign, and they’re asking all the wrong questions.

It’s also expensive and time consuming.  It’s a good technique if the goods are relatively homogenous, that you do these surveys regularly and systematically, and there isn’t a lot of places to investigate.  So, basically not the ivory market in China…

So this year did something a little different. And that’ll be the next blog post…

[1] Vigne, L., Martin, E., 2011. Consumption of elephant and mammoth ivory increases in Southern China. Pachyderm 49, 79-89