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 a 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 program of limited ivory sales. 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 £864 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. They insist the only way to save the African elephant, conservationists say, is to outlaw the sale of ivory entirely.
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. The sale, however, has proved to be a colossal failure. The regulated ivory trade has provided unscrupulous Chinese carvers and collectors with the ideal legal camouflage to buy and sell contraband tusks.
First opened in 1898, the Old Phoenix Auspicious Jade and Ivory Carving Company in Shanghai is a tradition-bound shrine to China’s newfound prosperity. Its shelves bulge with jade carvings and coral brooches, though customers mostly come for the 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 £136,000
Upstairs, more than a dozen carvers sit silently at desks as they whittle away at pieces of tusk. Each carving comes with a government issued-certificate that includes a serial number; items over 50 grams must have a photo ID. But conservationists say the system has been widely corrupted.
Yan Zhong, the company’s general manager, pointed to a gold plaque on the wall as proof that all his ivory comes from the state. “All our ivory fell off elephants after they died, so it’s ethical,” he said.
Yet conservation group investigators say licensed factories often supplement official purchases with smuggled ivory, sometimes by adding illegal pieces to legitimate carvings. One factory owner privately acknowledged that the 330 pounds of legal ivory he acquires annually lasts just one month. The rest, he said, is bought on the black market.
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. In a society where Rolexes and Louis Vuitton bags are sometimes bought by the dozen, many Chinese believe that giving a trinket carved from elephant tusk confers the highest honour.
The Chinese government says it is doing all it can to stop ivory smuggling. Officials say that about 900 seizures are made annually within China.
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. When they do find a big haul, it is big news.
Chinese officials deny that corruption plays any role in the illegal ivory trade. Rather, they say, their country’s huge size and enormous population make it impossible to wipe out the trafficking. Today, the Cites delegations will gather in Bangkok for what is set to be a particularly contentious conference. While both China and Thailand are to be named as the biggest illegal ivory markets, only Thailand, which has no legal ivory trade system in place, is under pressure to crack down on ivory sales.
In fact, the Chinese government is lobbying to ease restrictions on ivory trade. Despite the continuing decimation of the African elephant, Meng Xianlin, executive director general of China’s endangered species trade authority, has insisted that herds could endure a robust international ivory trade. He wrote last year to the Cites Secretariat, saying that 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 – equalling the lives of roughly 20,000 elephants – every year.