Chinese police examine ivory and rhino horn products seized after breaking up a criminal ring in Xuchang in Henan province in Sept 2016. Photo: AFP

The Lunar New Year holiday marks the world’s busiest travel period – and with it what may be the world’s biggest illicit ivory-buying spree. Chinese consumers are among the primary drivers of ivory sales around the world. And every year, at least 20,000 African elephants are killed to meet black-market ivory demand.

In January 2018, China implemented a ban on selling and buying ivory, a significant and laudable step toward solving the elephant-poaching crisis. In the wake of the ban, a survey of Chinese consumers found a promising decline in ivory buying, thanks to increased awareness and enforcement.

Unfortunately, the study also found that one consumer group has actually increased its purchasing: people who regularly travel outside mainland China.

That means the consumers with the means to travel also have the most desire to keep buying. And their travel gives them access to ivory, since some of the destinations most popular with Chinese travelers – Thailand, Hong Kong and Vietnam – still have ivory on the shelves. Despite the fact that it’s unlawful to bring ivory out of one country into another without special permits, travelers are still risking it.

Chinese outbound travel is projected to grow to 200 million trips a year by 2020. If we want to achieve the ultimate goal of the ban – saving Africa’s last remaining elephants – we must curb consumers’ purchasing of ivory outside of China.

That’s why conservation groups are working to change travelers’ buying behavior, to remove ivory from Southeast Asian markets and to make ivory socially unacceptable. Groups as diverse as the World Travel and Tourism Council, China Customs and the Tourism Authority of Thailand are taking part. Online influencers, bloggers and celebrities are also joining in to ask people to travel ivory-free.

The joint campaign relies on an immersive strategy that touches Chinese tourists at every point along their travels, from the time they’re researching trips online to when they’re walking around known ivory markets in Southeast Asia. We’re leveraging behavior change and social-science research, including the deepest research ever assembled on ivory consumers.

And we’re using some of the tools that commercial brands have perfected to influence consumers, like precision marketing through social media. For example, just about anyone with a Chinese smartphone visiting Thailand and Vietnam during Lunar New Year will receive messages from WWF and the travel industry to avoid ivory and seek legal, alternative souvenirs.

Thailand is a particularly important focus of this campaign. It’s legal in Thailand to sell ivory from captive elephants. And Thailand is the most popular foreign destination for Chinese travelers, who comprise more than half of all tourists to the country – nearly 10 million last year. If we don’t address Chinese travelers’ access to ivory in Thailand, it could seriously undermine the effectiveness of China’s ban.

The good news: Diverse allies are bringing an array of tools to bear. In Bangkok, a pop-up market for Lunar New Year visitors this month is offering alternative, sustainable souvenirs that are locally crafted. And thanks to the support of two airlines that fly from China, flight attendants have been making announcements on flights to Thailand and Vietnam encouraging visitors to travel ivory-free.

This is how we are working to change consumer behavior. By combining the best available insights into ivory consumers, highly targeted digital outreach and collaboration between the conservation and corporate sectors, we hope to fulfill the true promise of China’s ban.

Together, we can end market demand for ivory and take a giant step toward ending the senseless slaughter of elephants around the world.


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Jan Vertefeuille

Jan Vertefeuille is senior director for advocacy at World Wildlife Fund in the United States (WWF-US).

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