China's ivory craze leaves 32,000 elephants dead
Chinese investors have anointed it “white gold.” Carvers and collectors prefer the term “organic gemstone.” Smugglers, however, use a gruesomely straightforward name for the recently harvested African elephant tusks that find their way to this remote trading outpost on the Vietnamese border. “We call them bloody teeth,” said Xing, a furniture maker and ivory trafficker who is part of a shadowy trade that has revived calls for a total international ban on ivory sales.
To the outrage of conservation groups trying to stop the slaughter of African elephants and the embarrassment of Chinese law enforcement agencies, Xing’s thriving ivory business is just one drop in a trail of blood that stretches from Africa, by air, sea and highway, to Chinese showrooms and private collections.
“The Chinese hold the key to the elephants’ future,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants. “If things continue the way they are, many countries could lose their elephants altogether.”
Critics say the Chinese government is not doing enough to stem the illicit ivory trade, which has exploded in the five years since conservationists and governments agreed to a programme of limited ivory sales intended to stifle poaching and revive a centuries-old handicraft. Since the beginning of 2012, more than 32,000 elephants have been illegally killed, according to the Born Free Foundation, a wildlife organisation, and conservationists say the majority of ivory sold in China, which sells for more than $1,300 a pound on the black market, is of questionable origin.
Legalised ivory sales have been a boon to carvers and brokers, who have helped fuel the demand for ever greater supplies. But those who investigate the trade in China say the skyrocketing sales – and the incentive for poaching – can be tied to a combination of incompetence by law enforcement and official corruption, especially by the military. The only way to save the African elephant, conservationists say, is to outlaw the sale of ivory entirely. Though the clandestine nature of ivory smuggling makes it difficult to fully map out, experts say Africa’s elephants are being slaughtered at the highest rate in two decades, largely to satisfy soaring demand among China’s growing middle class. “China is clearly driving the illegal ivory trade more than any other nation on earth,” said Tom Milliken, an elephant expert with the wildlife trade-monitoring network Traffic.
Things were meant to turn out differently. In 1989, the UN-backed Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, banned the sale of ivory in an effort to stop what conservationists say was an elephant “holocaust.”
But as herds recovered, CITES officials in 2008 agreed to a contentious one-time auction of stockpiled African ivory to Japan and China, with the money going toward wildlife conservation. As part of the arrangement, the Chinese government introduced a complex documentation system to track every trinket and carving produced from the 68 tons of auctioned ivory it won. Supporters hoped a flood of cheap, regulated ivory would undercut the illegal trade, saving more elephants.
The sale, however, has proved to be a colossal failure. Like the forest canopy that protects poachers from detection, the regulated ivory trade has provided unscrupulous Chinese carvers and collectors with the ideal legal camouflage to buy and sell contraband tusks. Things went wrong from the start, and wildlife groups say the Chinese government is partly responsible. After obtaining the auctioned ivory at artificially low prices, state enterprises in China began selling limited amounts to carving factories for up to eight times the winning bid. Instead of smothering the sale of illicit ivory, the spike in prices made poaching even more attractive.
In 2011, for example, auctioned ivory fetched about $94 million, double the previous year’s total, according to the China Association of Auctioneers. “Buyers wouldn’t even take home the carvings they bought before putting them up for bid again,” said an employee with a major Beijing auction house who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivities involved.
Even though the Chinese government in 2011 barred auction houses from selling ivory, sales continue – as does the bloodshed. First opened in 1898, the Old Phoenix Auspicious Jade and Ivory Carving Co. in Shanghai is a tradition-bound shrine to China’s newfound prosperity. Its shelves bulge with cabbage-shaped jade carvings and coral broaches, though customers mostly come for the blindingly white array of ivory bookmarks, chopsticks and idols. In one corner, spotlights illuminate a large tusk carved into a 360-degree-panorama of pagodas, palm trees and robed scholars. The price: about $2,05,000.
Ivory is etched deeply into the Chinese identity. Popular lore tells of emperors who believed ivory chopsticks would change colour upon contact with poisoned food. In Chinese medicine, ivory powder is said to purge toxins from the body and give a luminous complexion. As part of its public relations effort to legitimise the trade, the government in 2006 added ivory carving to its official Intangible Cultural Heritage register, along with Beijing opera, kung fu and acupuncture.
“Love for ivory is in our blood,” said Wu Shaohua, president of the Shanghai Collectors Association. In a society where Louis Vuitton bags and Rolex watches are sometimes bought by the dozen, many Chinese believe that giving a trinket carved from elephant tusk confers the highest honour. “It says this relationship is as precious as ivory,” he said.
Wu said he thinks the prestige and artistry of ivory may outweigh, for enthusiasts, any potential concerns over its provenance. International conservation groups and the Chinese government have tried to raise awareness. In Africa, home to at least 1 million Chinese nationals, Chinese Embassies send text messages warning against buying ivory, according to a government report. In Beijing and other cities, public service campaigns, including one that features basketball star Yao Ming, link poaching to smuggled ivory. The Chinese news media frequently report the arrests of Chinese smugglers.
Then there is the emphasis on ivory carving as a hallowed tradition. A Chinese television documentary about the Beijing Ivory Carving Factory’s efforts to revive the ancient craft never broached the subject of poaching or explained that “elephant teeth,” as ivory is called in Mandarin, do not just fall out.
One shopper, a government worker who had seen the documentary, seemed unconcerned with the fate of Africa’s herds as she browsed the Beijing Ivory Carving Factory showroom in January. “As long as the quality of the ivory is good, who cares what happened to the elephant,” she said.
But critics say the government’s efforts have largely failed to tackle the syndicates responsible for moving vast quantities of smuggled ivory into China. After the authorities began targeting shipments from certain African countries, the smuggling rings started sending the ivory through intermediate ports so that it appears to come from elsewhere. Officials say they are able to check less than 1 percent of containers arriving on Chinese shores each year.
In fact, the Chinese government is lobbying to loosen restrictions on ivory trade. Despite the continuing decimation of the African elephant, Meng, the wildlife trade official, has insisted that herds could endure a robust international ivory trade. In a letter last year to the Cites Secretariat, he said China should be allowed to buy confiscated tusks from poached elephants in addition to those legally obtained. Asian demand, he wrote, required about 220 tons of raw ivory – equaling the lives of roughly 20,000 elephants – every year.