Craft or Species

Craft or Species

Weigh the craft of ivory carving against the survival of elephants.


5 - 12

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.

Media Credits

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Elaine Larson, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
J.J. Kelley
Elaine Larson, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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