The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) has warned that the number of elephants killed each year “is likely to run into the tens of thousands”. A report published in July 2012 said that China remained the main destination for large-scale ivory consignments. More than 24 tons of illegal ivory was seized worldwide last year, the most since a ban on the trade was introduced in 1989. [Source: Jerome Starkey, The Times, August 16, 2012]

Frank Pope wrote in the Times of London in 2011, “Africa is facing its worst elephant poaching crisis for decades with bulls being slaughtered illegally to meet the demand for ivory from China’s nouveau riche. Even in one of the continent’s best protected reserves, the Samburu National Park in northern Kenya, more elephants have been lost in the past two and a half years than in the previous 11. During the last five months, the level of poaching has been the worst on record. [Source: Frank Pope, Times of London, August 2011]

Africa had 1.3 million elephants in the 1970s but, according to the most recent estimates, now has about 600,000. “Even within well-protected, closely monitored populations, bull elephants and matriarchs are being targeted for their large tusks---skewing sex ratios and leaving leaderless herds of orphans,” said Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the founder of Save the Elephants, a research organisation based in Samburu. Last year, 30,000 elephants were poached from just one reserve, Selous, in Tanzania.

Dr Cynthia Moss, an elephant zoologist at the Amboseli reserve in Kenya, is certain that a decision by the UN’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) to relax a 20-year ban on the ivory trade is to blame. “In 2008, Cites allowed China to buy ivory from a stockpile, and in early 2009---for the first time in 20 years---we started seeing poaching,” she said. Demand from China’s nouveaux riche has driven the price of ivory to $700 a pound or more, which has encouraged poachers all the more. “If the 200 to 300 million affluent, middle-class Chinese chose ivory as a fashion item, then it could destroy a large part of Africa’s elephants,” Douglas-Hamilton said.

Alex Shoumatoff wrote in Vanity Fair, “The previous slaughter was driven by Japan’s economic boom. This new crisis is driven by China’s or bao fa hu (the “suddenly wealthy”), who are as numerous as the entire population of Japan. The main consumers are middle-aged men who have just made it into the middle class and are eager to flaunt their ability to make expensive discretionary purchases. Beautiful ivory carvings are traditional symbols of wealth and status. [Source: Alex Shoumatoff, Vanity Fair, August 2011]

“Crystal,” a Chinese undercover investigator for the IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) told Vanity Fair, “Elephants are a global priorityTigers are an Asian priority, and we are trying to do something for the stray cats. China has no animal-welfare laws.” Although the killing of a panda or an elephant was a capital offense until last year. There are only a few hundred wild elephants in China, all of them in the extreme south of Yunnan Province, near the Laos and Burma borders. They are the Asian species, Elephas maximus, of which there are around 50,000 left---about one-tenth of the African population. Most of them are in India, and their annual mortality from poaching comes to only 300 or 400.

Ivory Market in Hong Kong

Alex Shoumatoff wrote in Vanity Fair, “In the corridor leading from my plane to the formalities in Hong Kong International Airport, there is a display cabinet of forbidden wildlife products, including a hawksbill-turtle shell and an elaborately carved elephant tusk. But this isn’t stopping Hong Kong and adjacent Macao from being two of the main destinations for African ivory. A few days ago 2,200 pounds of ivory were seized on the beach of the Westin hotel in Macao. Using the commonly accepted figure of 12.6 pounds for the average pair of tusks, that would be 175 elephants. An average 45,000 pounds of ivory a year have been seized in the past decade. Using Interpol’s 10 percent estimate, which is based on the amount of drugs they believe they are intercepting---meaning 90 percent gets past them---that would be 450,000 pounds, or more than 35,000 elephants a year. So IFAW’s 36,500-a-year estimate, 100 a day, is definitely possible. [Source: Alex Shoumatoff, Vanity Fair, August 2011]

In the shopping arcade of the hotel where I am staying, there are a few bangles identified as “genuine ivory” for sale. Their prices range from $200 to $600. “I thought ivory was banned,” I tell the saleswoman. “This is a free port. You can buy whatever you want,” she says. “But there’s a display at the airport that says it’s forbidden,” I say, and the woman, shamelessly quick on her feet, says, “Well, yes, African ivory is. But this is mammoth ivory. Status fine.” But the bangles are pure, creamy white, unlike mammoth ivory, which is nut-colored or streaky---this is unquestionably savanna ivory from Africa.

Ivory Market in Guangzhou

Alex Shoumatoff wrote in Vanity Fair, “I take the evening train to Guangzhou, a big wholesale city and a mecca for thousands of African traders, who buy apparel and footwear to take back home to sell in Dakar or Kinshasa. The three men sitting next to me are Congolese. Guangzhou has a growing population of eight million people, and thickets of brand-new high-rises with kitschy pagodas on their roofs and lots of neon signage. It’s like Disney World, this crass new capitalist China. You can feel the economic vibrance and might of the next global superpower. [Source: Alex Shoumatoff, Vanity Fair, August 2011]

The next morning Crystal and I go to a jade store in the Liwan District to see if there are any ivory hanko. Hanko are the signature seals that documents in China and Japan are traditionally stamped with. The seals in Japan are round; in China they are square. Japanese tourists fly to Hong Kong or Shanghai for the weekend, where ivory is cheaper, and pick up a cylinder of ivory and take it back to a Japanese hanko shop that will then carve their seal. There are plenty of perfectly good substitutes, like ox bone or wood, but ivory hanko have cachet. It’s like owning a Mont Blanc pen.

The salesman tells us there is strict government control of ivory. “We can’t sell ivory publicly, but, “I have a friend who can do it. How many hanko you want.” We continue to the Hualin Street wholesale jade market, which has all kinds of beautiful stuff, not only jade. Contraband wildlife artifacts are openly displayed. One stall has hawksbill-turtle-shell eyeglass frames and combs. In another the man shows us two ivory bangles, a tiny abacus, a little Buddha, and a small tusk carved with a cabbage-leaf motif. He has his own factory in Fujian Province. The ivory comes from Africa by ship to a port near Taiwan. With a little coaxing he brings out the big stuff, wrapped in plastic: a two-foot-long tusk with the cabbage-leaf design for 28,000 yuan (a little more than $4,000).

“Do they have to kill the elephant?,” I ask him.”No,” he says. “After you get the ivory, teeth grow again, just like human teeth.”In the morning I say good-bye to Crystal. “You will see many changes in your lifetime,” I tell her. “China will have taken over the world, and maybe there will be no more elephants.” I will never let that happen,” she promises me.

David Tang, a member of China’s expatriate community in Kenya, said it was becoming harder to buy ivory in China. “There used to be shops selling ivory openly, but not any more.”

Forces Behind the Ivory Market in China

Alex Shoumatoff wrote in Vanity Fair, “In Guangzhou there are markets that specialize in wild-animal meat like snakes and rats, and there’s a special cat market. You pick the cat you want to eat, then they kill it and sell you the meat. There’s a saying that the southern Chinese will eat anything with legs except a table, and anything with wings except a plane. I’ve been hearing that this is also now a problem with the Chinese in Africa---and not only those from the South---who are eating domestic dogs and cats, baboons, painted dogs, and leopard tortoises and making soup from the marrow of lower leg bones of giraffes and from lion bones.

Grace Ge Gabriel, Crystal’s boss in Beijing, laments, “Chinese society today is ruled by one principle only: Make Money for Me. On the way to make riches for oneself, there is no concern for anything, including other people and the environment, let alone animals. Unfortunately, the south-Chinese practice of “eating everything in sight” is adopted by a lot more people now. And the Chinese have the ability to travel all over the world now. Especially in countries where law and order are not well established, these Chinese feel that they can get away with eating anything and everything.”

“Another problem,” Crystal explains, “is that the Chinese word for ivory is elephant’s teeth” xiang ya. We did a survey. Seventy percent thought tusks can fall out and be collected by traders and grow back, that getting ivory did not mean the elephant is killed, and more than 80 percent would reject ivory products and not buy any more if they knew elephants were being killed, so it’s ignorance.”But the same survey found reluctance to comply with the ivory-control system and a desire for “affordable” ivory. Fourteen and a half percent of those polled were already ivory consumers, and 76 percent were willing to break the law to buy ivory at a cheaper price. Liwan District, Guangzhou

Peter Knights, director of WildAid, an organization that uses Chinese celebrities, like N.B.A. star Yao Ming and Jackie Chan, to encourage Chinese not to buy ivory, told Vanity Fair, “It’s a combination of new money and old ideas, a huge bubble we’re trying to burst. The younger generation gets it. It’s the aging new wealthy, who have tremendous purchasing power and see acquiring ivory as part of holding on to their historic Chinese-ness, who have to be reached---before there’s no more ivory left to buy.” Knights told Vanity Fair the Chinese government has been very supportive. CCTV, the state-owned television station, and a whole range of other outlets have donated media time and aired everything from 15- to 30-second public-service announcements to five-minute shorts to half-hour documentaries.

Chinese Ivory Network

Alex Shoumatoff wrote in Vanity Fair in 2011, “In the first week of May alone, a ton of ivory was confiscated in Kenya, more than 1,300 pounds in Vietnam---from Tanzania---and a Chinese man was arrested at Entebbe airport in Uganda with 34 pieces of ivory. To top it off, a South Korean diplomat was caught trying to bring 16 tusks into Seoul. [Source: Alex Shoumatoff, Vanity Fair, August 2011]

Once ivory gets to Nairobi and is ready to be shipped, the Chinese involvement becomes traceable. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers and other temporary laborers are employed on road, logging, mining, and oil-drilling crews in all of the elephants’ range states. Some manage to make it home with a few pounds of ivory hidden in their suitcases, thus doubling their meager earnings, or they are recruited as carriers for higher-ups. But they are not the real problem. The real problem is the managers, who have the resources to directly commission some local to kill an elephant and bring them the tusks, and diplomats, whose bags are not checked, and the Chinese businessmen, who are taking over the economy of Africa.

In the last decade the number of Chinese residents in Africa has grown from 70,000 to more than a million. China’s trade on the continent---$114 billion last year---is expected to keep increasing by over 40 percent a year. According to Traffic, a nonprofit wildlife-trade-monitoring network, each day, somewhere in the world, an average of two Chinese nationals are arrested with ivory.

Back to the tusks. Maybe the smugglers deliver them to Mombasa. K.W.S. knows the networks. Once there, little boats come from big ships offshore to private wharves of local “tycoons” with heroin and guns and return with ivory. The drug, arms, money-laundering, and ivory trades are intertwined, K.W.S.’s Julius Kipng---etich told me. Where you have one, you have the others. Once on the big ship, the ivory is hidden in shipping containers with legal consignments like sisal (the fibrous agave that twine is made from), avocados, or pottery.

All over Africa, ivory from freshly killed elephants is being put on planes or ships and is hopscotching around the Middle East and Asia: to Beirut, Dubai, Bangkok (the big hub at the moment), Taipei, Vietnam, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macao. One consignment hidden in sisal made it all the way from Tanzania to the Philippines and was sent from there to Taiwan, whose customs thought, Sisal from Tanzania going to the Philippines, the world capital of sisal production? That’s like importing oranges to Florida. So they opened the crates, and there were 484 pieces of ivory.

Once a shipment leaves Africa, it never goes directly to the final destination. The routes are constantly changing. It’s a shell game, as Wasser says. But eventually most of the ivory arrives, by land, sea, air, or a combination thereof, in Guangzhou, formerly Canton, China’s main ivory-carving-and-trading center, just up the coast from Hong Kong. All roads lead to Guangzhou. There are around 100 master carvers in this humming city of eight million. Most of them are working in illegal factories. But there are also legal, state-owned factories, which get their ivory from the one-off sales of old stock that CITES allowed South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe to have in 2008. These sales supplied 100 tons of ivory to the Chinese and Japanese markets. The argument for allowing them to happen was that China and Japan would be happy with so much ivory, and the poaching would be reduced, but they have had the opposite effect: the poaching has been showing a steady rise, and a lot of illegal ivory is being passed off as old stock.

In August 2011 AP reported: “Hong Kong customs officers have seized a large shipment of African ivory hidden in a container that arrived by sea from Malaysia. Hong Kong government officials said on Tuesday that officers found 794 pieces of ivory tusks estimated to be worth $HK13 million ($1.5 million).The officers found the tusks, which were hidden by stones, on Monday after deciding to examine the shipment, which the officials said was labelled "nonferrous products for factory use". [Source: AP, August 31, 2011]

The container arrived from Malaysia, but the officials did not say where it originated from. A 66-year-old man was arrested and officials are investigating. Wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC said the shipment appeared destined for China, which it considers the leading driver of African poaching. A few weeks before 1041 tusks were seized on the island of Zanzibar, concealed in a container of anchovies destined for Malaysia, an important transit point for ivory smuggling.

Chinese infrastructure Projects and the Ivory Network

Frank Pope wrote in the Times of London “The increasing number of Chinese-led infrastructure projects in eastern Africa have provided a ready supply of middlemen willing to send ivory eastwards, where it fetches around £540 (NZ$1040) a kilo, according to Esmond Martin, an ivory trade expert. [Source: Frank Pope, Times of London, August 2011]

Alex Shoumatoff wrote in Vanity Fair in 2011, “Ninety percent of the passengers who are being arrested for possession of ivory at Jomo Kenyatta are Chinese nationals, and half the poaching in Kenya is happening within 20 miles of one of the five massive Chinese road-building projects in various stages of completion. [Source: Alex Shoumatoff, Vanity Fair, August 2011]

There had been almost no poaching around Amboseli for 30 years before a Chinese company got the contract to build a 70-mile-long highway just above the park. Since the road crews arrived, in 2009, four of Amboseli’s magnificent big-tusked bulls have been killed, and the latest word is that the poachers are now going after the matriarchs---a social and genetic disaster, because elephants live in matriarchies, and removing the best breeders of both sexes from the gene pool could funnel the Amboseli population into what is known as an “extinction vortex.”

Yao Ming and the Ivory Trade

Jerome Starkey wrote in The Times, “Flies buzzing around the reeking carcass did not deter China’s best-known sportsman from facing the tragedy. Three tonnes of African elephant lay rotting in the bush, scraps of blackened hide still clinging to bones too large for scavengers to steal. It was the third dead elephant that the retired basketball star Yao Ming, had seen that day. Two had had their tusks hacked off by poachers. The third had died of an infected gunshot wound but had fled to a quiet place in a dry riverbed in the lee of the Matthews mountain range in Kenya. Wardens removed its tusks before the poachers could.[Source: Jerome Starkey, The Times, August 16, 2012]

“We’re trying to deliver the message back to where I live that the only way to stop poaching is to stop the buying,” the former NBA player told The Times, as he watched a herd of elephants wade across the Ewaso Nyiro river. “Here, next to a group of elephants, it feels like you are walking into your neighbour’s house---just we are different animals. We are humans, they are elephants. That’s how I feel.”

Yao, who earned many millions of dollars a year as a player for the Houston Rockets, made his first trip to Africa as part of efforts to curb China’s soaring demand for ivory. “It’s our responsibility to let people know where those animal products are from,” Yao said. “Because it’s 10,000 miles away, people think there’s nothing they can do about it, but we are trying to bring the reality to them.” He confessed that he had used traditional Chinese medicines in the past, almost certainly made from smuggled animal parts, including rhino horn. “We used something. I don’t know what they really put in there, or if it is fake. But that’s before we realised.”

Working with the American charity WildAid, Yao has helped to persuade officials in Beijing to stop serving shark-fin soup at banquets. Peter Knights, the charity’s director, said he hoped that a series of public service announcements and a documentary filmed in Kenya and South Africa would have a similar effect on demand for elephant tusks and rhino horn. “It’s all about the popularisation of conservation,” Mr Knights said. “Poachers are prepared to risk their lives to kill these animals, so there’s not much more that rangers can do. It has to be done at the consumer end.”

Yao was welcomed to the Samburu National Reserve by traditional tribal warriors, who presented him with a custom-made 9ft spear---because, at 7ft 6in, he stands higher than most of their weapons. “If I saw him in the bush I would run the other way,” said Litus Lekalaile, a Samburu warrior. “There are legends about people who eat people. I would think he was one of them.” Bernard Lesirin, a wildlife guide at the Elephant Watch Camp, was more welcoming. “If he defends our elephants, he defends us as a people,” he said. “We hope Yao is going to be a bridge between us.”

Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the director of Save the Elephants, said he was optimistic that the campaign would work. “One only has to look at how Western attitudes changed from the days that people wiped out the last buffalo on the great American plains,” he said. “We were rapacious in that era. There is no reason to assume that rapacity is a Chinese characteristic, any more than it was one of our own.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2012

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