Understanding the drivers that lead to travelers purchasing ivory while abroad can help us target our conservation interventions more effectively.
COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the travel and tourism industry, with estimates ranging from 60% to 80% decline in international tourism for 2020. In order to make up for this precipitous loss, the sector is preparing for a travel boom once the threat of the pandemic has subsided.
“We know very few people have been leaving home this year, but according to China’s official tourism research institute, it was projected that there would be 550 million domestic trips during the Golden Week holiday, and that international travel will start as soon as it’s safe” said Jim Sano, the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF’s) Vice President for Conservation Travel. “We would like to ensure that the renewal of international travel doesn’t lead to an undoing of conservation gains made with travellers over the last few years, so understanding the drivers that lead tourists to purchase elephant ivory products while abroad will allow us to anticipate and curtail their demand for ivory.”
Before the current international travel restrictions were in place, a study of more than 3000 Chinese travellers was conducted between October 2019 and January 2020. The travellers in the study had all been to key destinations in Asia – Cambodia, Hong Kong SAR, Japan, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, or Vietnam – at some point during the previous two years.
The study found that about one in ten Chinese travellers surveyed (11%) had planned to purchase ivory prior to making their trip. This was especially true for those travelling to Thailand (21%), Japan (19%), and Hong Kong SAR (17%).
An estimated 6.8% of travelers are thought to have purchased ivory while traveling outside of Mainland China. More than half of the people who reported buying ivory said they did so as a gift for a friend or family member, while a quarter did so as a gift for a business relation.
During their trips, a shocking 22% of surveyed travellers had somebody recommend visiting an ivory retailer, with almost a quarter of travellers having visited at least one shop that sold ivory. Recommendations to visit these shops were mostly given by local tour guides (60%) and staff at tourist information centers (37%).
“The fact that ivory purchases are being facilitated by those working in the travel and tourism industry in destination countries is worrying, but also presents a good opportunity for targeted interventions,” said Karen Xue, director of WWF’s Ivory Initiative. “If we can change the behavior of these tourism sector actors, we can greatly reduce the chances that travellers have to purchase ivory while abroad.”
When assessing the authenticity of the ivory, nearly half of the travelers surveyed (47%) relied on authenticating documents provided by the sellers to determine if the ivory was real. Of those that bought ivory, 44% of consumers mailed it home to Mainland China, either personally or through the retailer, while 28% carried it back with them.
“In addition to the tourism sector, these findings show that creative demand reduction efforts and interventions with the private sector are key if we want to keep Chinese outbound travellers from taking ivory home,” said Jan Vertefeuille, Senior Advisor on Advocacy in Wildlife Conservation for WWF. “If we can discredit the documentation that identifies ivory as ‘authentic’ or get courier companies to cooperate with our counter wildlife trafficking efforts, we can disrupt the flow of elephant ivory into China.”
This study builds on previous consumer surveys about the elephant ivory trade in China conducted by GlobeScan for WWF (2017 and 2019) which looks at changes in attitudes and purchases since China banned its domestic ivory trade in 2017. Following this historic decision, WWF initiated a global initiative addressing the supply and demand of ivory products which is embedded in its multifaceted strategy to tackle the illegal wildlife trade around the world.