01:42 - Source: CNN
Finding illegal ivory online

Story highlights

Asia, especially China, a key market for ivory trade

Legal and illegal trade in ivory exists in parallel; confusing consumers

China is taking steps to combat the trade but may be too late for elephants

Editor’s Note: Grace Ge Gabriel is Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. She is a guest on the latest episode of “On China,” a monthly talk show on CNNi.
The views expressed here are solely those of the author.

CNN —  

Human beings slaughter elephants for their tusks. We kill tigers for their bones, rhinos for their horns. We hack the fins off sharks then toss their mutilated bodies alive back into the ocean.

We exploit sentient beings in the animal kingdom from land to sea, driving many to the brink of extinction.

All because of our insatiable demand for rare animal parts and products as ingredients in tonics and food, as collectables and trinkets, as investment vehicles and “status symbols”.

The brutal slaughter is often done thousands of miles, sometimes continents away from the consuming market destinations.

From poaching of animals to the trafficking of their parts to consuming of their products, the bloody trail often leads to Asia, particularly China, where the demand for products from endangered species has sky-rocketed.

This has been made possible by fast-growing economies, an increase in purchasing power, availability and accessibility of these products on the marketplace, and widespread consumer ignorance about the impact of the trade.

Although some endangered species are protected by international and domestic laws banning the trade in their parts and derivatives, loopholes and exceptions are actively created and exploited by those who benefit from commercial trade in wildlife.

READ: China plays favorites with endangered species

Criminal’s dream

The grey market where legal and illegal trades exist in parallel is a dream come true for a wildlife criminal.

Not only does the legal market provide cover for wildlife parts from illegal sources to be “laundered”, it removes the stigma attached to wildlife consumption, providing criminals with many more consumers than the black market.

Most people assume that illegal products are not easily obtained. They worry about the stigma attached to buying and using illegal items. On the “grey market,” where banned products are illegal in some cases and legal in others, consumers can easily become confused, mistaking availability for legality.

Compounding the confusion is the ignorance about the origin of the wildlife products. A survey by my organization, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, in 2007 found that 70% of Chinese did not know ivory comes from dead elephants. In Chinese, ivory is literally translated as “elephant teeth.”

READ: Inside the battle to save Africa’s elephants

Based on this knowledge of public misconception, IFAW conducted a behavior change campaign through culturally-appropriate and socially-motivating messages educating consumers and stigmatizing wildlife consumption.

Since 2009, our “Say NO to Ivory” public awareness campaign has reached hundreds of millions of people thanks to many corporations, such as outdoor advertising giant JCDecaux, which provided in-kind support to place the ads indoor and outdoor, online and offline in a media blitz across the country.

The campaign message was adopted into the Chinese language for the country’s college entrance exam – reaching 9 million college applicants.

In 2013, an independent assessment showed the campaign had penetrated 75% of urban China, reducing the group with the most propensity to purchase ivory from 54% to 26%.

READ: Dog lovers and dog eaters clash

In the past six months, more than a dozen celebrities—from Chinese pop stars to business tycoons—have joined the campaign. Collectively, they are calling on individual consumers to reject ivory products, artists to stop carving ivory, and the government to ban ivory trade.

WATCH: Yao Ming fights to halt ivory trade

Ignorance vs. greed

NGO campaigns can erase consumer ignorance yet cannot eradicate greed.

To change the high-profit, low-risk nature of wildlife crime requires strong political will to implement clear laws removing grey markets.

Strong and clear laws banning ivory trade combined with vigorous enforcement and meaningful penalties can stigmatize consumption, thus support demand reduction efforts. Numerous polls in China indicate overwhelming public support for the government to ban ivory trade in order to help elephants.

Major technology companies in China, including Alibaba, Taobao, Tencent, and Sogou have lead the way for the industry to make their online marketplaces unavailable for the trade of endangered species and educate consumers.

In May when 662 kg of ivory was crushed in Beijing, the Chinese government pledged to “eventually halt the processing and trade of elephant ivory for commercial purposes.”

A villain with elephant blood on its hands or a hero helping to stop the poaching? China may have chosen the latter.

I just hope it is not too late.

READ: Friend or food? Dog meat trade divides China

The views expressed here are solely those of the author