China has long been the world’s biggest ivory market, with consumption peaking about five years ago as the country’s emerging rich and free-spending officials came to view it as a symbol of wealth and prestige.
Intricately crafted elephant tusks were exchanged as gifts by Communist Party cadres and within high-level business circles as a means of expressing status and appreciation of an ancient Chinese art form.
But with a domestic trading ban looming on Jan. 1, attitudes towards ivory in China have shifted dramatically.
Demand has plummeted in recent years as huge publicity campaigns – backed by Prince William and David Beckham – raised awareness of the devastating consequences of the poaching of tens of thousands of African elephants for their tusks every year.
The pair were joined in a 2013 campaign by home-grown superstars, former basketball player Yao Ming and actress Li Bingbing.
In 2015, Prince William – much better known in China than his younger brother – visited an elephant sanctuary in Southern China and said that China can be a global leader in the fight against the ivory trade.
A wide-ranging crackdown on corruption, launched by Chinese president Xi Jinping when he assumed power five years ago, has also ensured that ivory has been removed from the offices of officials.
During the boom years of ivory consumption in China, the homes of rich families or the offices of senior officials would often have on display the most prized ivory ornament – a carved whole tusk.
Pendants and other jewellery items made of ivory were also popular among many affluent Chinese, who believe it to be a symbol of status or even that it will bring them luck.
But in recent years, ivory is rarely seen on display in private homes.
Campaign group Save the Elephants said the price of ivory in China had decreased from $2,100 (£1,640) per kilogram in early 2014 to $730 (£570) in Feb. 2017.
And a recent survey from conservationists World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and TRAFFIC suggested that 86 percent of Chinese support the January 1 ban, which has been gradually implemented in recent months, further forcing down prices.
More than half of those who had previously bought ivory have now stopped buying, the report said, the majority in the last three years.
Iris Ho, wildlife program manager for the Humane Society International in Washington, said increasing awareness of animal cruelty in China has transformed views on ivory.
“Some of the Chinese public didn’t previously know that ivory comes from dead elephants,” Ms Ho told The Telegraph.
“They thought that an elephant tusk continues to grow like human teeth.
“The Chinese appetite toward ivory didn’t come from ill will, but rather from lack of awareness.
“Once they became ‘enlightened’ on the animal cruelty and threat of extinction aspects, it is easy for them to give up.”
More than 30,000 elephants were said to have been killed each year for their tusks up until 2015.
Around 20 million African elephants existed before European colonisation, decreasing to 1.3 million in 1979, while less than 400,000 are now thought to remain in the wild.
China said it closed 67 ivory carving factories and retail shops in March – roughly one-third of the total.
The Telegraph visited one of Beijing’s biggest antique markets earlier this month and could not find any elephant ivory traders. Only crafted mammoth tusks were on display.
Zheng Suisheng, one of China’s best known ivory carvers, said he was gradually diversifying into mammoth ivory, which is legal to trade in China.
“But few people know about mammoth products,” said Mr Zheng, who crafts ivory ornaments from his workshop in the eastern Zhejiang province. “So it will take years to make a profit.”
The upcoming ban is also having a major impact on Chinese collectors.
Zhang Zhengmao, also from Zhejiang, who has amassed hundreds of ivory products, said: “It hasn’t been easy to sell products for profit recently, and collectors won’t be collecting after the ban.”
China’s new regulations have been labeled a ‘game-changer’ by conservationists, and the move is also viewed as a necessity by Beijing, which is trying to woo African governments and businesses.
But campaigners are concerned that traders might seek to exploit loopholes in the regulations, or trade on the black market.
The Telegraph spoke to one retailer in Shanghai who suggested he would continue to sell his products.
The trader recalled previous crackdowns throughout Chinese history which had not stamped out the country’s ivory industry.
Ivory was considered a bourgeois extravagance after the Communists seized power in 1949, and it again became taboo during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when Mao Tze-tung’s fanatical student followers sought to enforce their vision of a socialist utopia.
“I don’t need to discount my goods head of the ban,” said the trader, who did not give his name. “I have my own ways to sell them.”
There are also worries that many Chinese might travel to markets in Laos, Vietnam or Burma where they can buy ivory at cheaper prices.
The WWF/TRAFFIC report – which surveyed people in 15 cities and was described as the largest-ever ivory consumer research – said one in five Chinese consumers could be classified as “persistent buyers of ivory”, who would continue buy even after a ban.
This group consists of “a large number of millennials”, according to Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC’s Elephant and Rhino Program Leader.
“That translates into over 200 million die-hard buyers, which is very shocking indeed,” he told The Telegraph.
“A lifetime of on-going work needs to be done to address Chinese demand for ivory and other wildlife products.”
Additional reporting by Christin