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Photo of Nellie Shute with her homemade gift cards.

Nellie Shute created and sold elephant gift cards, raising $250, which she donated for the care of an elephant orphan.

PHOTOGRAPH BY KATRINA SHUTE

Laurel Neme

for National Geographic

Published April 24, 2014

Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.

Hong Kong schoolchildren are transforming attitudes about elephant ivory through small actions that are having a big impact.

Hong Kong is at the heart of the ivory black market. Its bustling ports are a major entry point for smuggled ivory shipped from Africa to Asia. In recent years officials have seized huge amounts of ivory: 3.4 tons in 2011, 5.6 tons in 2012, and about 7 tons in the first ten months of 2013.

Now, kids in Hong Kong are using school projects, letter-writing campaigns, petitions, and protests to educate their peers and parents about the true origins of decorative ivory. As a result, they're helping change habits and policies.

Meet Nellie Shute

When Nellie Shute, a 12-year-old at the Hong Kong International School, read articles about the ivory confiscations, she was horrified by how many elephants must have been killed. She did a school project on it, and when she presented her work, her classmates too were shocked. They promised to tell their parents, many of whom owned things made with ivory.

"I knew I'd made a difference, even though it was only a small number of kids," Shute said. "And I knew I had to do more to spread the 'no to ivory' message."

So Shute contacted Elephant Voices, a Kenya-based NGO cofounded by Joyce Poole. When Elephant Voices shared her letter on their Facebook page, Shute was overwhelmed by the more than 600 people who commented and themselves shared it.

Determined to do more, she created and sold elephant gift cards, raising $250, which she donated for the care of an elephant orphan at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya.

Photo of a young elephant and its handler.
A baby elephant plays with its caretaker at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya.
Photograph by Michael Nichols, National Geographic

Education: The Wrong Kind

The Hong Kong government often displays confiscated ivory at schools and libraries for "educational" purposes. Yet Shute believes the displays are counterproductive.

"My school was given the tusks to educate students," she said. "But it wasn't doing that at all. Actually, it was reinforcing the idea that it's acceptable to display ivory as artwork. Kids were walking past and saying, 'Wow, that's so cool.' It wasn't cool at all. An elephant was killed and had its face ripped off so that those tusks could be there."

Shute wrote to her principal explaining how she felt. She was nervous but heartened by his response. He said the school hadn't thought about it that way and that she was right.

He agreed to send the ivory back to the government, and when it was returned last December, the shipment included a petition organized by Shute with more than 500 signatures from students and teachers explaining why the school didn't want the ivory and why the government should go a step further and destroy its entire ivory stockpile.

Christina Seigrist and Lucy Skrine

Christina Seigrist, a nine-year-old at the Chinese International School in Hong Kong, learned what was happening to elephants from her parents and their friends, who work in conservation.

She was encouraged to act by her school's theme, "Let's make the world a better place," and by her involvement in the Jane Goodall Institute's Roots and Shoots program.

"I was really worried that if we don't do anything, I will not be able to see elephants in real life when I grow up," Seigrist said.

Seigrist's friend, Lucy Lan Skrine, an 11-year-old at the Independent Schools Foundation Academy, had watched a National Geographic documentary on rhino poaching and later discovered that elephants are poached too.

"This really angered me, having met an elephant up close in Thailand," Skrine said. "Knowing these friendly, harmless animals could be extinct made me want to help."

In September 2013 the two girls joined with Nellie Shute to form the Elephant Angels.

Photo of seized ivory.
More than four million euros' worth of seized elephant tusks, rhino horns, and leopard skins were on display at the Hong Kong Customs and Excise headquarters in August 2013.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ALEX HOFFORD, EPA/CORIS

Angel Power

On January 22, the Elephant Angels delivered a petition to the Hong Kong government advocating destruction of its ivory stockpile. They had garnered more than 18,000 signatures, nearly double their goal of 10,000.

On January 23, the Hong Kong government announced its intention to destroy 95 percent (28 tons) of its almost 30-ton ivory stockpile. Slated for May 15, this will be the world's largest ivory destruction so far.

Overjoyed, the children sent handmade cards to officials with the words, "Thank you 11,000 times" (the number of dead elephants the stockpile represents).

"It's a way of putting their memory to rest," Shute said.

Protesting Ivory Sales

The angels didn't stop there.

"If the government is serious about saving elephants, they shouldn't allow shops to sell ivory at all, because that just encourages demand," Shute said.

Domestic legal ivory sales often provide a cover for illegal ivory. Undercover video footage released on February 12 showed staff at two Chinese Arts & Crafts (H.K.) Ltd. stores telling customers how to illegally smuggle ivory across borders. (A company spokesperson said its ivory crafts were sold legally under relevant laws and noted that Hong Kong's Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department monitors local sales.)

On February 15 the angels staged a protest at one of the stores. Standing in front of a window display of a massive set of tusks, they handed out leaflets and talked to shoppers about the true source of the ivory.

"When we were protesting, people were wondering what was happening, and they stopped and read our posters," Seigrist said. "I speak Chinese, and I was able to talk to kids visiting from mainland China that elephants are killed for their ivory. It was shocking to find out that they thought the tusks just fall off the elephants. They were horrified and immediately told their parents right there not to buy the ivory."

She continued: "There was one old Chinese man on his bicycle. He was looking at the pictures of the killed elephants, then suddenly he fell off his bike and started crying and asking how could anyone do this to an animal. I was so sad to see him crying."

After the protest, the group received many interview requests.

"We were happy with these results because the news, radio, and TV stations have the power to teach more people about the cause," Skrine said.

Photo of children and adults protesting ivory trade.
Children and adults protest the illegal ivory trade at the International March for Elephants in Hong Kong on October 4, 2013.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ALEX HOFFORD

More Students Join the Fight

On March 15, students at Clearwater Bay School organized their own protest.

Researching the illegal ivory trade for a school project, they'd interviewed Alex Hofford, cofounder of Hong Kong for Elephants and a consultant for WildAid. They'd also visited a Chinese Arts & Crafts store and were concerned about the ivory.

"I don't want to see any type of animal become extinct just because people want money," said Clearwater's Giacomo Faye. "I want the next generation of humans to see them up close and not on their iPad or TV."

Shortly after the protest, the company announced it had "suspended the business of selling ivory products at all [its] branches."

"It goes to show that the power of schoolkids protesting on their doorstep every month was not lost on Chinese Arts & Crafts," Hofford said.

The children were pleased with the result.

"It's one giant leap to stopping the ivory trade," Faye said.

"If it's not in the shops, people can't buy it," Shute added. "If they can't buy it, hopefully they will no longer want it."

The ivory suspension is a potent statement, but it will have little impact on the company's bottom line. Chinese Arts & Crafts represents a small part (perhaps 3 to 5 percent) of the sales of its parent company, China Resources Enterprise, whose core business is food and drinks. Furthermore, because the company sells ivory products on consignment, it can simply return them to the consignee.

Toward a Total Ban

Hong Kong's Elephant Angels are now set on winning a total ban on ivory sales. They've started another petition, which has already garnered thousands of signatures and are planning a protest, on May 14.

After they targeted the second largest ivory retailer in Hong Kong, Wing On Department Store, it announced today that, effective July 7, 2014, it would stop selling ivory. Now they have the third largest, Yue Hwa Chinese Products Emporium, in their sights.

Children around the world can lend their support to this cause, said Christina Seigrist. "I would ask them to share this with many of their friends, and also do a presentation at their school."

"Remember, this is our planet, and these are our animals," Skrine added. "It's up to this generation to save them before they die out."

"Don't be afraid to stand up for what you believe in," Shute advised. "If you do nothing, nothing will change. Our young voices can be very powerful, and people will listen. You just have to speak up!"

If you have stories of children taking action for elephants or other wildlife, please comment here or share on the author's Facebook site.

34 comments
Cynthia Allen McLaglen
Cynthia Allen McLaglen

I am so glad our friends in China,- especially the Chinese children, are joining in after their educational experience about where ivory carvings come from. Ivory carving was brought to the school, but the children thought this would exploit the children and lead them to believe it was acceptable because it was "art". So the School sent the carvings back to the government with a petition that every piece of ivory there meant an animal had had it's face ripped off. They turned to the selling part of the trade. The Chinese government crushed 28 tons of ivory worth 11,000 elephants lives. The Children sent 11,000 thank you cards to Chinese official thanking them. Then they turned their attention to shops that sol ivory and went around the streets with their messages. Old men and other adults thought that the ivory fell off the elephants and cried as they realised that every piece of ivory meant a death. Some companies shut down their shops and stopped selling ivory at their branches as well.

I am going to the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos and Big Cats ON Sat 4 October 2014.( Tigers and Lions whose bones are used for medicine and Tiger wine, and Rhino's horns are used for bogus medicine). YOU MIGHT AS WELL EAT YOUR OWN NAILS, AND HAIR. It would be better for all these animals who also lose their lives for something that is not true!

THANK YOU HONG KONG ELEPHANT ANGELS! You have far more than I have!  I have been making big banners for all these subjects close to your hearts and will march through the streets with them.

 Love to you and my very best wishes to you, from Cynthia Allen McLaglen 

Steve Adams
Steve Adams

I also am embarrassed and ashamed of my generation, probably the most knowledgeable, yet most destructive in all of history. We have left our children with the burden of cleaning our mess for the sake of their own survival. And we complain when we step on a piece of Lego.

Klara Lipton
Klara Lipton

The children are our future. I hope they can do it. We have tried and failed and I'm so ashamed of our generation. Go little ANGELS. 

Mazhar Saeed
Mazhar Saeed

Amazing force of little angels! I always feel our kids are the only hope for a better earth.

A. Person
A. Person

Woah, that baby elephant is cute... I wish I had a puppy sized elephant that would snuggle with me in bed.

hkk ljj
hkk ljj

This is awesome. My daughter will use this for her current event.

Maria Condori
Maria Condori

Its really amazing what these kids have done.

Tanmay Sharma
Tanmay Sharma

Great! I truly appreciate the amazing work done by these young children. God bless them! Being a wildlife lover too, I believe we all should come together as one and help save this poor animal. They are lovely animal and they have the right to live in peace like we humans do. 

Natalie Gray
Natalie Gray

What a great story to end a wonderful day. Very thankful.

Elisa Celis
Elisa Celis

I'm glad but angered at the same time, supposedly the chinese "cry" for the elephants but they don't cry for the abuse of their own dogs and cats, sharks and moon bears, they cruelly abuse domestic and wild animals for their "traditional medicine", and that must end. Like i said i'm glad awareness is rising and i support it, but the chinese are specially HYPOCRITICAL in these issues.

Morgain McGovern
Morgain McGovern

No offense, but what do these kid's parents do who go to these international schools? Most of the people I know who live as expats in Singapore or China work for large corporations whose main source of income are from companies who rape the earth or profit off the misery of people. Or, they're corporate lawyers who help the Chinese rape the earth. Let's get real here.

Callan Thompson
Callan Thompson

This makes me so happy to see young children speaking up for Elephants. It is so sad to see all these animals dying off rapidly due to humans. It makes me sick and I believe we adults need to learn from these children.

Agnieszka Marszalek
Agnieszka Marszalek

This is a great project. These students are addressing the real issue and are not interested in a ban-aid solution! Great work! Keep it up!

Nicola Somers
Nicola Somers

What an amazing story.  It's wonderful to hear good news about elephants and rhinos and that amongst the younger generations there are warriors fighting for what is right. Love to all of you children and keep going until it is illegal.  Such an inspiration :) 

Jodi Domian
Jodi Domian

I may have said this already...but that's ok.  Thank You. <3  Wonderful children :) 

Gabriel Revänche
Gabriel Revänche

wow!!! Brilliant, younger generations will take action for our future, which is the Best idea everr...!!! the more they contribute the better they'll have great influence to others, GudLuck keepitUp! :D

Tracy Ford
Tracy Ford

It is so wonderful to hear about children taking action to make the world a better place.  There is far too much in the media lately about children not caring about others or about the planet (or feeling that the situation is hopeless).  We need more stories like this one. 

Matthew Jones
Matthew Jones

All amazing! Keep up the great work, Karma will find you all.

Leia Cairns
Leia Cairns

What awesome young people!! Bless them!!

Eric Nicolas Schneider
Eric Nicolas Schneider

Yay, Nellie Go! We are with you to mobilize in schools around the globe. Dear Nat Geo. CONGRATS on proper "positive change" article writing. With *take action tips and *tools. THis is rare and needed. Add even more *take action* visuals of Nellie to complete it and link to her Presentation Kit to make it perfect. If you need help, connect with me, and the tidal wave of positive change media and youth leadership in education for creating a sustainable civilization of peace and abundance for all - the solutions exist. 

Weizhuo Shi
Weizhuo Shi

You little kids are really hero to protect elephants, and deserving respects.

Lori Sirianni
Lori Sirianni

Brilliant and inspiring advocacy by Nellie Shute and all the children advocating for elephants.  Please keep on doing it!  You are the future, the young people who will inherit this earth from us older generations and you should be proud and stand strong knowing you are saving elephants for your own generation and the children who will come after you.  All the world's stockpiles need to be destroyed, all ivory trade and sale needs to be banned worldwide (we're working on this in the U.S.) and China needs to close its 37 ivory carving factories or switch to resins or non-animal materials.  As long as there is trade and carving, the elephants will keep dying.  I think Nellie's generation and the ones to come after her deserve to have elephants roaming this earth instead of ivory trinkets.  

rachel monger
rachel monger

While not for wildlife, Amisadai (10) and Louisa (8) are taking action to raise awareness for the problem of access to (clean) water in Tanzania. So far they have raised over £873 for projects on the islands of Lake Victoria through a SODIS Shake (teaching how to treat water to make it safe to drink) and a Water Walk. www.mongergirlswaterworks.webs.com

We know that here in Tanzania, the elephant issue is a very big problem ... so maybe this will be next!

Liane Brewer
Liane Brewer

I think it is amazing and wonderful  that these children are taking part in a very

dire and worthy cause. Their voices will certainly  make a difference and we will be able to save these precious elephants.

Eric Mills
Eric Mills

Wonderful news!  I'll be taking copies of this article to a conference in San Francisco tomorrow at Golden Gate University School of Law, "1ST ANNUAL CONFERENCE ON ANIMAL WELFARE IN MAINLAND CHINA AND TAIWAN."


Heartfelt thanks to the many kids making a difference.  As Dr. Seuss's Lorax says, "If somebody like YOU doesn't care a whole awful lot, then nothing's going to get better.  It's not."


x

Eric Mills, coordinator

ACTION FOR ANIMALS

Oakland, California

Cynthia Carlson
Cynthia Carlson

Keep up the good fight, kids! We must protect and fight for those who cannot defend themselves. It is noble.

Lama Sh A
Lama Sh A

@Lori Sirianni  I "think Nellie's generation and the ones to come after her deserve to have elephants roaming this earth instead of ivory trinkets." I totally agree with you. There's no pleasure like the pleasure of seeing the animals roving around and living their own normal life. Just keep up the good work and hopefully soon we'll see more and more changes around the world. We always need formidable deeds like these, indeed.  

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