Illegal ivory openly on sale in Chinese cities

Ivory Smuggling China
A new report finds smuggled ivory is rampant in China, much of it from illegal poaching in Africa

China has become a major market for illegally poached ivory from Africa (Image courtesy of EIA)

Activists question allowing China to participate in ivory trade, with estimates that as much as 90 per cent of retail items in the country are illegal
The Chinese aren’t actually killing elephants [in Africa] but they’re organising it and that’s even worse

Elephants, while revered in some cultures as highly emotional and intelligent creatures, are prized elsewhere purely as a commodity. The long-held desire for elephant ivory has fuelled an industry which has placed both of the earth’s two species of elephants - Asian and African - on the IUCN red list, the former listed as endangered and the latter as vulnerable.

In China, a deeply rooted cultural emphasis on ivory as a status symbol - coupled with the recent exponential growth of the consuming class - has created a demand for ivory that is the highest in the world.

Just ahead of this week’s meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the international body created to protect wildlife from over-exploitation, the findings of an investigation into the illegal ivory trade in China were released by the NGO Elephant Family. The report details the rampant sale of illegal ivory throughout the cities of Guangzhou and Fuzhou as well as the complete lack of policing and enforcement.

Despite a 1989 CITES ban on the international sale of new ivory, there are still several types of ivory that are considered legal in China when accompanied by proper documentation: antique ivory, or that which is already carved and in circulation; mammoth ivory, which comes from the extinct relatives of modern elephants; and ivory that was included one of two CITES-certified ‘one-off’ sales in 1999 and 2008. In the UK and throughout the EU, however, only antique ivory dated before 1947 is legal for purchase.

In both of the CITES internationally approved sales, the ivory came from southern African nations, who insisted it was sourced from natural mortality or culling, not poaching. The intent of these sales was to provide the Asian markets (Japan and China) with a legitimate source, thereby reducing the demand for poached ivory. Esmond Martin, an expert on the ivory trade who co-authored the recent report, says that it was China's status as a buyer, and not the African nations selling the ivory, that concerned him most.

‘In 2008, it was first time China was allowed to buy’, Martin explains. ‘Why did I oppose China? For the very simple reason that they can’t control the ivory trade’.

In the recently released report, Martin found evidence to back up that claim. In the city of Guangzhou, 61 per cent of the nearly 6,500 retail ivory items surveyed were illegal and lacked legitimate ID cards. In addition, there were many cases of mammoth ivory being mixed with elephant ivory, the latter being smuggled in and then passed off as the former.

‘Several vendors openly said their ivory was new and illegal’, the report states. ‘This suggests that official inspections and confiscations have not taken place in most shops’.

Ivory smuggling into Asia

The illegal ivory mentioned in the report is largely being smuggled from Africa, Martin says. Unlike in Asia, there is very little internal demand for ivory in Africa, so most of it gets exported. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), the year 2009 saw a record number of seizures of illegal ivory being smuggled into East Asia, a trend that has continued over the past two years.

‘What you have in Africa is an unregulated ivory market where the majority of buyers in those markets are foreigners. They’re not African’, Martin said. ‘The Chinese aren’t actually killing elephants [in Africa] but they’re organising it and that’s even worse’.

At the CITES standing committee meeting being held in Geneva this week, discussions about the possibility of furthering the international ivory trade will continue. It is expected that in the next two years, other African nations will request the permission for more one-off sales, like those that occured in 1999 and 2008.

Mary Rice, executive director of EIA, opposes these one time, experimental sales because she and the EIA believe they do not curb the ivory market at all.

‘In fact, the opposite has been observed in that the experimental sales may have in fact stimulated demand and consequently contributed to an increase in illegal ivory flows and the poaching of elephants’, a briefing from EIA states. ‘This failure should be recognised and not repeated’.

EIA’s own investigation into China’s ivory market produced an even more severe picture than Martin’s report. It estimates that as much as 90 per cent of China’s ivory market is illegal and that the small percentage of legal stock only serves to confuse consumers.

The Chinese aren’t actually killing elephants [in Africa] but they’re organising it and that’s even worse

'China has been highlighted year on year as the single biggest destination for illegal ivory yet they were still approved [by CITES] as trading partners', Rice said. 'It's nonsense'.

The UK-based Elephant Family, which advocates specifically for Asian elephants, is firmly opposed to the sale of ivory products outright. But, when it comes to whether or not ivory that’s already in existence should be put on the market to satiate the high demand or simply be destroyed, head of conservation Dan Bucknell explained the organisation is currently weighing its stance.

‘You can’t ignore that there is a demand for ivory at present’, said Bucknell. ‘But should legal ivory be sanctioned to sate that demand in order to prevent illegal poaching? Our concern is that supplying that market in any way shape or form could fuel the market for more ivory and thus the killing more elephants’.

Conflict ivory

While the impact this has on elephants is devastating, decimating both populations and habitats, Martin says it has a profound human effect as well, similar to conflict minerals such as blood diamonds.

‘The illegal ivory trade has terrible effects on African nations. There are armed conflicts going on over this’, Martin says. ‘It’s a human problem not just an animal problem. It's a massive web of corruption'.

Encouragingly, Martin cites the case of India, which managed to drastically reduce its ivory trade with very little help from western nations or any NGOs. Like China, India once had widespread internal demand for ivory, as it was commonly used for wedding bangles. However, after an aggressive initiative from the prime minister, the picture is different today.

‘If you go there now and try to see ivory [out in the open] you don’t see it’, Martin explains. ‘It’s incredible how successful that has been. It’s the government—that’s the main thing and then backed up by NGOs who supported it’.

With the decision over whether a third, one-off sale will be allowed to be determined at a later date, the answer to what an ideal picture of the ivory market would look like is hard to define.

Martin would like to see a clear separation of mammoth and antique ivory from new ivory in all retail locations, and new ivory that’s sold to be clearly identified as CITES certified. Rice, on the other hand, sees a different picture.

‘There is no way of distinguishing between the ivory currently available on the market as being from the legal sale or from illegal sources’, Rice said. ‘Given this, we do not support ay further trade/sale of ivory from any source’.

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