From Tusk To Trinket: The Illegal Ivory Trade In Vietnam
While ivory has largely gone out of style in the West due to its association with poaching, ivory markets are still strong in many areas of the world. Regulations have made even just obtaining ivory in many Western countries very difficult, driving the trade further underground. In other parts of the world, the trade is more open and blatant.
In this study, researchers examined the ivory market in Vietnam in order to determine the effectiveness of current anti-ivory measures and suggest improvements. The Vietnamese ivory market is estimated to be one of the largest in the world, and some evidence suggests it has actually grown in recent years, in spite of legal barriers. Some of this may be due to legal loopholes that exist in Vietnam’s anti-ivory laws. For example, the law only explicitly applies to ivory obtained after 1992 and in quantities greater than 2kg. This excludes much of the ivory on the market.
To gather data, surveys were conducted both in-person and online. The two phases of in-person surveys took place over 13 locations in Vietnam, with 852 outlets examined in total. Locations ranged from large cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Ha Noi to tourist towns like Lak and Nhi Khe. Questions were primarily in Vietnamese, though Chinese and English were also used if necessary.
In these surveys, researchers took note of the quantity and type of ivory items for sale, as well as the listed price. Sellers were questioned as to their knowledge of ivory’s illegality, in addition to their usual clientele and the origin of their items. Price for each item was recorded without any haggling and included any metals or gemstones that were included with the ivory.
Meanwhile, the online survey examined 17 different sites, mainly e-commerce sites. Items were found by entering Vietnamese keywords, and researchers recorded the item’s price, seller’s publicly available information, and seller’s preferred method of payment.
Researchers who went to physical outlets recorded over 6,000 items in their first survey and just under 3,000 in their second pass. Well over 90% of items in both surveys were classified as jewelry – rings, bracelets, necklaces, pendants, etc. Around 50% of items in both surveys displayed fewer than 5 ivory pieces, and only 10% displayed more than 50. The most common currency used was Vietnamese dong, followed by Chinese yuan and US dollars. The highest price items in each survey were a $2,637 ivory bangle and a $1,420 ivory necklace. However, the range of prices was extremely wide.
In the physical locations, vendors usually stated Vietnam to be the items’ country of origin, although Africa and Thailand were also claimed as sources. The vast majority of sellers were aware of ivory’s illegality, but it didn’t appear to have a deterrent effect. The ivory market appears to be incredibly fluid, with many outlets recorded as selling ivory in the first survey did not sell ivory in the second, and vice-versa. Many vendors claimed to have Chinese and Korean clientele.
Online, researchers recorded 4,363 items for sale in 184 unique posts/ads. The majority of items were for sale on a single social media site, and 97% of the items were jewelry. The highest price listed was much more modest than the in-person outlets: a $285 ivory pendant. The lowest price was $7. Like the in-person outlets, roughly 50% of posts advertised fewer than 5 items, and under 10% advertised more than 50.
In these online sales postings, sellers generally preferred to be contacted over the phone, though many used Facebook and Valo (Vietnamese messaging app). Most requested to be paid through bank transfer. Vietnam was the most commonly-listed country of origin, with a few items listed as coming from Thailand and Cambodia.
There are several things animal advocates can take away from this study. First, and most obvious, is that current anti-ivory measures have failed. The market is resilient and fluid, and most vendors and buyers continue to engage in illegal activity despite knowledge of its illegality. Complicating enforcement efforts is the fact that the majority of outlets only offer a few items at a time, and may go long periods without offering any ivory at all.
Tourism is also a clear factor in ivory sales, as many small tourist towns were recorded as having a disproportionately large amount of ivory for sale. Cities near the Chinese border were also recorded as having large amounts of ivory for sale, as well as having ads in Chinese and prices in yuan. Finally, it’s worth noting that it’s most vendors were either lying or mistaken when they claim to sell ivory of Vietnamese origin. Given the small elephant population in Vietnam, it is much more likely that these items come from African elephants.
The researchers suggest several things to improve authorities’ success in the fight against the ivory trade. At the governmental level, legal loopholes need to be closed: all ivory, regardless of quantity or origin, needs to be banned from sale. Secondly, law enforcement agencies have to be given the resources needed to survey the ivory market. These enforcement efforts need to be targeted at areas with a high density of ivory outlets, like major cities and tourist towns near the Chinese border. Law enforcement needs to be bold in their mission, regularly confiscating ivory found at physical outlets. Physical and online outlets, though different in many ways, need to be monitored through routine surveys, and a database should be compiled of all seized ivory.
Finally, the government needs to make efforts to reduce consumer demand. This will have to be an international effort, as many of the buyers in Vietnam’s ivory markets are from other countries. Prohibition does limit the availability of ivory, but as we have seen with drugs, guns, and alcohol, black markets will still exist if demand isn’t curbed. If consumers stop demanding ivory, poachers will stop going after elephants. Law enforcement is absolutely necessary in the meantime, but the effectiveness of even the best law enforcement measures pales in comparison to a simple lack of demand.