Chinese Demand Revives Ivory Trade
HONG KONG—A long-dormant threat to Africa’s elephant population is back with a vengeance, thanks to rising demand for ivory from newly affluent Chinese consumers.
Elephants carved from illegal Ivory on display at an ‘Endangered Species’ London Zoo exhibition this monthat the London Zoo on September 12, 2011 in London, England. The exhibition is organized by Operation Charm, a Metropolitan Police partnership aimed at tackling illegal trade in endangered wildlife and runs for one month at London Zoo.
Reflecting this demand, ivory prices in China have soared to as high as US$7,000 a kilogram in 2011 from US$157 a kilo in 2008, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nongovernmental organization based in London. Estimates from other researchers and NGOs put ivory prices in China as low as US$300 to US$750 a kilo, which nevertheless reflects at least a 100% increase in price over three years.
Official data on the extent of the ivory trade are difficult to come by, as much of the trade is illegal. From 2009 to June 2011, mainland China and Hong Kong seized more than 6,500 kilograms of illegal ivory in four large shipments, according to a report released by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or Cites.
“China has overtaken Japan as the world’s largest consumer market for illegal ivory products,” the Cites report said.
Malaysian authorities this month confiscated nearly 700 African elephant tusks destined for China from Tanzania, the third seizure of illegal ivory since July, officials and wildlife activists said, according to the Associated Press. A week earlier, Hong Kong authorities had seized $1.6 million in African ivory from a container that arrived by sea from Malaysia.
In China, sales have been driven by ivory’s appeal as a traditional symbol of wealth and status. “Lately, we’ve had a lot of mainland Chinese customers,” said Alice Chan, sales manager at Exquisite Crafts, an antique shop in Hong Kong filled with figurines carved from both elephant and mammoth ivory, including two enormous carved tusks on display in the shop window. “They’re rich now.”
Mammoth ivory is legal to import and export from Hong Kong, but Ms. Chan says that the Chinese typically want elephant ivory, which is considered of higher quality. Cites says almost all of the current demand for elephant ivory comes from the Chinese market, including Hong Kong and Macau. The Geneva-based Cites is an international agreement among 175 governments, including the U.S. and China, that aims to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants doesn’t threaten their survival.
Outlets that legally sell elephant ivory from old stocks in China are supposed to be licensed and monitored by the government, with certificates accompanying all legal ivory. Taking ivory out of China or importing it into most other countries, including the U.S., is illegal.
“More than 90% of wildlife seizures made by the Chinese Customs in recent years have involved elephant tusks and ivory carvings,” said Wan Ziming, a Chinese government employee and director of Cites Enforcement Coordination for China.
Since the late 1970s, Africa’s elephant population has fallen by more than half, from about 1.2 million to between 472,000 and 690,000 today, according to the 2007 African Elephant Status Report, which is sponsored by a network of multiple governments, NGOs, and volunteers.
Earlier this month, Malaysian customs officers inspect elephant tusks which had been seized in Port Klang, outside Kuala Lumpur. Malaysian authorities have confiscated some 700 African elephant tusks worth about $1 million destined for China, the third seizure of illegal ivory since July.
In 1989, Cites banned the international ivory trade to try to curb the rapid decline in Africa’s elephant population. For years, experts considered that ban, to which China is one of the 175 signatories, a success in reducing the poaching of elephants, as the number of illegally killed elephants fell drastically and the total population became stable, albeit at a much lower volume than before the rampant poaching of the 1970s and 80s. But newfound interest in ivory from China is reversing those gains, researchers and NGOs say.
“Looks like now that we’ve had almost 20 years of cease-fire, people have become complacent, and we need renewed interest,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder and chief executive officer of Save the Elephants, an independent research organization based in Kenya.
Elephant killings in the first sixth months of this year in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya and surrounding areas are already double the level of any year in the past decade, he said. Mr. Douglas-Hamilton and his team of researchers count by hand the dead bodies of slain elephants in the areas they study, though he declined to comment on exact numbers.
“All hell’s breaking loose,” said Cynthia Moss, a researcher who has studied elephants and their conservation in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park for 30 years. “Up north, we lost 23 elephant in the last two weeks.”
“China has a huge middle class now,” Ms. Moss said. “People in China never bought ivory before, because they couldn’t afford it—they carved it, but it all went out to Europe. Now it’s being bought in China by the Chinese, and that’s a disaster.”
Abetting the traffic in illicit ivory is a surge of Chinese investment in Africa, a source of key mineral and other resources. South Africa’s Standard Bank forecasts that investment from China in Africa could hit $50 billion by 2015, up 70% from 2009.
“As China expands its presence in Africa in the form of investments and infrastructure development in remote areas, and also areas with significant elephant populations, the incentive or temptation increases for the Chinese worker to look for ivory,” said James Isiche, East African director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
The Kenyan government burned approximately five tons of seized elephant ivory on July 20, in a move meant to illustrate how serious it is about stopping the illegal trade in ivory and the poaching of their elephants.
Chinese appetite for ivory was whetted in 2008 when Cites approved a one-off sale of ivory stocks that were old or had been collected from already-dead elephants. Four southern African nations sold about 108 tons of ivory to Japan and China, flooding the market for the first time in almost 10 years.
Now, China’s ivory consumer base appears to be expanding, says Wang Juan, an official in the Beijing office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
“Traditionally, we think it’s always wealthy people who are the main buyers for ivory products,” Ms. Wang said. “But actually, there are many young people buying ivory, too.”
Some Chinese media, she added, often promote the collectible value of ivory, further stimulating demand.
Two companies in Beijing that offer custom ivory carving services both declined to comment.
Over the past 15 years, around 20 smugglers responsible for illegal commercial import of ivory have received the maximum penalty for wildlife smugglers in China, which is life imprisonment, according to Mr. Wan. Most offenders who illegally take small amounts of ivory into China are fined, and the ivory simply confiscated, according to Mr. Wan.
And for every seizure that gets prosecuted, 20 or 30 others don’t, said David Higgins, manager of Interpol’s environmental crime program.
“I think the public gets confused when they see a seizure of five tons of ivory,” he said. “Half the time, if not more, we never have an offender. Customs agencies just do the seizures, and there are no follow-up investigations.”
A lack of proper communications between national police bodies and national wildlife or environmental enforcement agencies is one reason why prosecutions are rare, Mr. Higgins said. In addition, wildlife crime is rarely a high priority for prosecutors.
According to a study released last month by Elephant Family, a charity, the Aspinall Foundation and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, a survey of ivory for sale in Guangzhou, China, counted 6,437 elephant ivory objects on display for retail sale, of which 3,947 were being sold without ID cards, and therefore illegally.
“Decreasing demand means educating hundreds of millions of Chinese,” Mr. Isiche of the International Fund for Animal Welfare said. “We did a survey and found that 70% of Chinese consumers did not know that elephants were killed for ivory. Some people thought elephants lose tusks the way people lose teeth.”
In response, Mr. Isiche last month launched a “Green Tour Africa” campaign with the Kenyan Embassy in China to ensure that Chinese citizens receiving a visa to visit or work in Kenya would be educated about the ivory trade.
—Sue Feng in Beijing
contributed to this article.