Investigative journalist Bryan Christy visits an artisan carver in Hong Kong discovering the longstanding Chinese tradition of carving ivory. Then he moves to a factory where ivory carving is a full-scale industry. With unsustainable consumption, Christy asks if a craft or a species is more important.
  • In 2012, investigative journalists Bryan Christy and Aidan Hartley went undercover to expose the criminal network behind ivory’s supply and demand, and documented their work in the National Geographic special Battle for the Elephants. This clip from the film takes a closer look at the production of ivory products in China—from the master carver who has honed his craft over 58 years to the assembly-line workers mass-producing items for an expanding market.


    Observing a master carver in China painstakingly create a priceless piece of art from ivory, Christy acknowledges the exquisite beauty of the craft and the deep importance of ivory in Chinese culture and tradition. He poses the central question: “Is this craft or this species more valuable?”


    The tradition of ivory carving in China began during the Shang Dynasty (1600 to 1050 BCE), but flourished with the opening of the Silk Road some 2,000 years ago, and became more intricate and widespread during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Traditional ivory carvers still create their delicate sculptures with meticulous detail and over long periods of time. Large, intricate pieces can take years to carve. However, the exploding demand for ivory products in China has resulted in the growth of an assembly-line type of mass production. As Christy says in the film, “The Chinese government is saying, when you look at a master carver, this is what we want to preserve.”


    For the master carver and the assembly-line carvers alike, legal ivory is in short supply. With the source of legally obtained ivory extremely limited, and China’s demand for ivory increasing, factories often turn to the ivory underground—criminal networks that deal in poached ivory.  The International Fund for Animal Welfare estimates that 84 percent of the ivory sold in China is illegal. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) reports that nearly all of the current demand for elephant ivory comes from the Chinese market.

    1. How is the art of the master carver different from that of the factory carvers? Why is this distinction important?

      The intricate, painstaking work of the master carver is part of the ancient tradition of carving in China—one that many feel needs to be protected as part of the culture of the country. The master carver makes fewer pieces because of the skill he or she has developed over many years, and his or her work takes much longer than that of the assembly-line carvers, which probably means that the master carver uses much less ivory over the span of his career. The master carver’s work also has more monetary value in the marketplace. The factory carvers represent a shift to mass production that brings work of less value into the market, filling the growing demand for ivory products at a lower cost. This trend has a negative impact on elephant survival because the demand for ivory, much of which will be obtained by poaching, increases.

    2. Is it possible to maintain the tradition of ivory carving and ensure the survival of Africa's elephants at the same time? Why or why not?

      If yes, answers may include taking action to support the master carvers while regulating the amount of ivory products produced in factories. However, this would most likely face stiff opposition from consumers, as the demand for luxury ivory products is increasing. If no, answers might include the fact that most of the ivory used in China is obtained illegally—a trend that is not likely to change because the ban on ivory sales remains in effect, limiting the supply to poached ivory. As demand grows, the fate of Africa’s elephants is dire.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    market Noun

    central place for the sale of goods.

    poach Verb

    to hunt, trap, or fish illegally.

    trade Noun

    buying, selling, or exchanging of goods and services.