Even People Who Buy Ivory Think It Should Be Banned

A new survey reveals the motivations and feelings of ivory buyers.
August 12, 2015, 5:30pm

People who still buy ivory like to purchase it because they see it as a status symbol and an indicator of good taste and wealth. This is in spite of the fact that those buyers also support ivory bans and are "very upset" about the impact of the ivory trade on elephant populations, according to a new survey.

For those of us who would never even consider buying ivory, it's tough to wrap our heads around the motivations of the millions of people who still support the trade. But a new survey of buyers in five key countries shines a light on why anyone still purchases ivory products and offers some hope for ending the trade outright.

The survey was conducted by National Geographic and public opinion research firm Globescan between February and September of last year. Through 45 one-on-one interviews, ten focus groups, and survey of about 5,000 people across China, Thailand, the Philippines, the United States, and Vietnam, researchers were able to gain insight into what motivates people to buy ivory.

Pollsters identified "likely buyers," people who were most likely to buy ivory within the next three years. These individuals represented 22 percent of all respondents, skewed younger, and were from a lower to middle income bracket. According to the survey, 70 percent of likely buyers said they view ivory as a status symbol (compared to 50 percent of all respondents) and about 60 percent attached feelings of pride and respect to ivory products.

They also love to give ivory as a gift, the survey found. An analysis of responses indicated gift giving was "the strongest driver of ivory purchase among consumers," and many likely buyers identified ivory as "the perfect gift."

But ironically, the people most likely to buy ivory also had a deep understanding of the effects the ivory trade is having on elephant populations and were largely in favor of ivory bans. The same percentage of likely buyers (70 percent) said "endangered" described elephants "very well," and 71 percent said they "fully believe" that growing demand for ivory leads to more elephants being hunted by poachers, while 76 percent said this fact makes them feel "very upset."

Despite the knowledge that the illegal ivory trade is responsible for the slaughtering of hundreds of thousands of elephants, pushing the species to the brink of extinction, buyers can't seem to let go of their love affair with ivory trinkets. Part of the problem the survey uncovered was the belief that small pieces of ivory don't make a big impact in the overall market and that it's easy to identify poached ivory as opposed to antiques.

So what can we do? The survey provides some possible answers there, too.

The majority of overall respondents (close to 80 percent) said they would support a full-out ban of all buying, selling, importing, and exporting of ivory in their country. Even likely buyers largely supported a blanket ban on ivory trade, with 67 percent saying they would be in favor, and 26 percent saying they would be strongly in favor of it. Proposals to ban ivory have been bubbling in China and the United States this year, and with even the people who are propping up the market in favor of a ban, it seems like one of the most effective ways to cut ivory poaching off at the head.

But the survey also revealed potential, short-term downside to tightening regulations: some respondents (as high as 22 percent in China) said if they knew ivory was going to become illegal to buy, they would scoop up a bunch now before it's too late.

If we can't find a way to end the ivory trade quickly, "before it's too late" will have an entirely different meaning.