Elephant Ivory Trade In China: Trends And Drivers


  • Ivory in China is traded in the “white”, “black”, and “gray” markets.
  • White legal factories and outlets increased from 40 in 2004 to 182 in 2013.
  • Black online market price for small tusks is about US$ 2.15 per gram in 2014.
  • Gray ivory auction market (2002–2011) is highly correlated to elephant poaching.
  • The arts investment boom since 2008 is a key driver of ivory trade in China.


Poaching of African elephants is threatening the species viability. International non-governmental organizations and media often attribute the basic problem to China’s domestic ivory market. We present quantitative and qualitative information on trends and drivers of the ivory trade in China. Results show that ivory is traded in “white” legally licensed retail outlets, “black” illegal shops and online trade forums, and “gray” live auctions of uncertain legality. White markets are primarily in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. The numbers of legal factories and retail outlets increased from 9 and 31 in 2004 to 37 and 145 in 2013. Black markets thrive in online trading platforms, such as Baidu Post Bar. Gray markets auction ivory items surging around 2006, mushrooming after 2009, peaking in 2011, and plummeting over 97% following government intervention. During 2002 to 2011, the ivory auction in China and elephant poaching in Africa are strongly positively correlated. Drivers of the ivory trade are multiple and complex, including Chinese consumers’ motivation stemming from the socially-constructed economic, social, cultural, aesthetic, religious, and medical values of ivory. We highlight China’s intangible cultural heritage preservation, the boom of arts investment, and the auction ban in changing ivory values and influencing markets. We argue that elephant conservation can be more effective if it is based on a more comprehensive and contextual understanding of China’s domestic ivory trade.

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Authors: Yufang Gao And Susan B Clark