Over the past decade, tens of thousands of elephants have been killed in central Africa for their ivory, making for a loss of 62% of the forest elephants in that part of the world. Here’s an example of what’s been happening: “About a year ago, poachers attacked a family of forest elephants in central Africa. The biologist who witnessed the attack told us that wildlife guards were completely outgunned. In the end, an elephant mother, riddled with bullets and trumpeting with pain and fear, was left to use her enormous body to shield her baby. Her sacrifice was for naught; the baby was also killed.” The authors of this NY Times article goes on to describe an elephant corpse he saw in Africa: “The elephant’s face was a bloody mess, its tusks hacked out with an ax--an atrocity that is often committed while the animal is alive.” What happens to the baby elephants when their mothers are killed? The young don’t “develop secure social relationships when living in a state of terror, or mourning slain family members--and elephants do mourn. When mothers are killed, babies still dependent on their milk die slowly from starvation, heartbroken and alone.”
The reason the wildlife guards in Africa are outgunned by the poachers is that the demand for ivory has skyrocketed over the last decade, and so the suppliers are highly incentivized to do whatever they can to obtain the ivory to sell. Most of this demand for ivory is in China. In the past, only the super-rich Chinese or Europeans could have afforded ivory, but with the recent rise of China’s middle class, thanks to its booming manufacturing industries, many more Chinese can now afford ivory, including many young people (see here). Ivory is used as a status symbol for the newly rich (see here). According to a 2007 International Fund for Animal Welfare study, 70% of Chinese people don’t understand how ivory is taken from elephants: they assume that the ivory grows back so that the animal doesn’t have to be killed. Thus, there are campaigns, such as one featuring the basketball player Yao Ping, to educate the Chinese. Ping participated in a similar campaign against shark fin soup in China, which likewise was highly sought by the Chinese middle class as a way to show off their new found wealth. The insatiable demand for ivory or shark fins drives up their prices, so that owning or consuming these commodities indicates the owner’s high social status. According to Ping, the campaign against shark fin soup has worked, so he’s optimistic that within 10 years, owning ivory will be as shameful as eating the soup in China (see here). By that time, most of the elephants will have been killed, though, and irreversible damage to the elephant population may already have been done.
In any case, according to the evidence cited by the Wikipedia article on shark fin soup, the demand for the soup has been lowered mainly in Hong Kong, but is rising from the middle class in mainland China. Indeed, I’d expect that an education campaign alone will not curb China’s demand for products made from endangered species. After all, if the demand is from the newly-rich middle class, including many young people, it’s unlikely that most of these consumers are ignorant about how ivory is taken from elephants. If they’re rich, they have access to the internet where the facts are just clicks away. According to the 2011 IFAW study on ivory poaching, ‘Despite the price increase, demand continues to rise as ivory is promoted as having “inflation-proof investment value” and that possessing and gifting ivory demonstrates status’ (sic). Ivory is thus bought as “white gold.” The 2012 NPR article, cited above, corroborates this point: “China's housing and stock markets have both taken hits, and the nation's super rich are looking for other places to invest their cash.” Wealthy Chinese investors who are looking to park their money in highly valuable commodities aren’t likely uninformed about endangered species, because they’re educated and sophisticated enough to have made that money in the first place and they’re making a strategic business decision about where to invest it.