The latest issue of the journal Biological Conservation features a study by Gao Yufang and Susan Clark, both of Yale University, on the trends and drivers of the ivory trade in China. One of their most interesting arguments is that part of the recent uptick in China’s ivory trade – and therefore in African elephant poaching as well – is driven by China’s moves to recognize and preserve ‘intangible cultural heritage’, as well as by related increases in investment in China’s arts industries and markets:
In the early 21th century, the nearly extinct Chinese ivory industry…began a revival owing to a social movement focused on preserving China’s intangible cultural heritage. In November 2002, the 16th National People’s Congress (the highest legislative body in China) stated that, “we must give our support…to the protection of major cultural heritage and outstanding folk arts” … A nation-wide taskforce was established, made up of the Ministries of Culture, Education, Finance, the National Development and Reform Commission, and others. Institutions, including research centers, theme museums, and heritage transmission centers, were created at national, provincial, and local levels. Moreover, a national inventory of intangible cultural heritage was launched in 2005, and publicity initiatives were undertaken.
Ivory carving as a profession and tradition is one of the many traditional cultural forms that seized this opportunity for revitalization. The industry promoted the ivory carving culture in exhibitions, newspapers, TV, radios, and on the Internet. In May 2006, Beijing and Guangzhou ivory carving was included in the first National List of Intangible Cultural Heritages. This recognition guaranteed that the ivory industry could receive substantial support from the state. Indeed, preserving national intangible cultural heritage was the main reason proposed by the SFA in its attempt to acquire CITES approval to import ivory from Southern African countries. Recognition of intangible cultural heritage preservation continues today and thus enhances the cultural and aesthetic values of ivory artworks.
Noting the recent huge increase in China’s art auction market, they also argue that, “The rapid expansion of the ivory trade after 2009, particularly in the gray market…is animated by a boom in arts investment.”
All of this makes the work of reducing, or outright banning, the ivory trade in China culturally and politically complicated and difficult. There is a very deep and significant nostalgia in China for traditional cultural arts and craft skills, like ivory carving. That nostalgia is also caught up in the current wave of popular nationalism and a general trend in cultural conservatism that highly values distinctively Chinese arts such as ivory carving. The best solution, it seem, would be come up with a suitable substitute, a kind of shanzhai ivory that preserves the carving crafts without killing the elephants. The Chinese, after all, are shanzhai specialists. Surely it’s not too much to ask for a viable shanzhai ivory? However, as Zhou Zhao-Min (an enforcement officer with the Yunnan Public Security Bureau) recently wrote in the journal Nature, fake ivory has failed to dent the illegal trade. And fake ivory raises its own problems:
Because synthetic and authentic ivory are so similar, unscrupulous traders caught smuggling illegal ivory can claim that it is synthetic; they can also pass off synthetic ivory as genuine when they sell it. The situation may be aggravated by legitimate traders, because they are entitled to compensation if destructive sampling is carried out to conclusively distinguish real from synthetic ivory
Zhou has investigated 57 cases of suspected illegal ivory trading since 2011. “Of these, 27 attempted to disguise samples of genuine ivory by mixing them with fake ivory, and only 513 of 1,714 items actually proved to be synthetic.”