African ivory's illicit path to Chinese treasure

Dan Levin / New York Times News Service /


Published Mar 5, 2013 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

PUZHAI, China —

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 program 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 organization, 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.

Legalized 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 U.N.-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.

A cultural tradition

Ivory is etched deeply into the Chinese identity. Popular lore tells of emperors who believed ivory chopsticks would change color 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 legitimize 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 honor. “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.

But the government’s anti-ivory message is muddled. In 2011, Beijing began allowing Chinese travelers from Zimbabwe to carry up to 22 pounds of carved ivory products as “souvenirs” in their luggage, a policy that confuses potential collectors, say conservation groups.

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, some 90 percent of them involving Chinese travelers concealing ivory in their suitcases.

Some cannot resist turning their hobby into a revenue stream. In 2012, a woman was given an eight-year prison sentence for selling 19 pounds of ivory online. Government officials said 32 smugglers have been given life sentences.

Legal versus illegal

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.

When they do find a big haul, it is big news. In January, customs officials in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, confiscated nearly 3,000 pounds of ivory, worth $1.4 million, hidden under rocks in a shipping container that came from Kenya through Malaysia — their third large ivory seizure in three months.

In 2010, the authorities in Macau found 2,200 pounds of ivory, including some 6 1/2-foot tusks, floating in nylon sacks along the shoreline near a golf course.

Here in Puzhai, residents still talk about the raid of April 2011, when a routine inspection yielded one of China’s largest seizures ever: 707 tusks, 32 ivory bracelets and a rhino horn, all hidden inside cardboard boxes in the back of a truck.

To conservationists, such huge confiscations are proof that the legal ivory experiment is a failure. “Seizures are not an indication of success,” said Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

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. “There are always fish that slip through the net,” said Meng Xianlin, executive director general of China’s endangered species trade authority.

The Chinese government has not responded well to criticism. At a CITES meeting two years ago, China forced all nongovernmental organizations to leave the room when word spread that two groups were planning to issue reports highlighting Beijing’s failings.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman said last month that Chinese law enforcement had “effectively curbed” ivory smuggling.