The Dragon’s Hunger For The Elephant: How China Is Driving International Growth In Illegal Ivory Dealing
The bodhisattva Guanyin is venerated as a symbol for compassion and mercy by Buddhists in East Asia. Translated into English, her name means “attentive to the cries of the world.” It is all the more tragically ironic then, that her image is a popular subject for ivory artisans in China, often working with illicit materials sourced from the slaughter of African elephants.
African governments — and international animal-rights organizations — contend the Chinese luxury consumer’s appetite for ivory is driving a new wave of illegal killing of one of their continent’s most iconic animals.
Demand is only one side of the equation: Poor oversight and shoddy legal enforcement across countries are other reasons why dealers in fresh ivory are now able to avail themselves of an illicit pathway from Central and West Africa to artisan shops in Southern China — and ultimately onto mantles and shelves in the homes and offices of China’s rising upper class.
The illegal trade in ivory is not only a major issue in conservation but also increasingly a problem of international organized crime and illicit trafficking, an illustration of developing-world resource mismanagement, and an expression of the gaps in transnational security.
U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the illegal ivory trade a “multimillion-dollar criminal enterprise” at a committee hearing on poaching held May 24. Kerry said the illicit trafficking of ivory is a “menace to developing economies” and only one facet of a globally interlinked network that includes illegal exploitation of timber and mineral resources.
Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the CEO of the nonprofit organization Save the Elephants and a witness at the same hearing, said, “Demand for ivory in China is flourishing as never before, and is driving the illegal killing of elephants, but the consequences of their buying illegal ivory is largely unknown by the Chinese public.”
The above elephant tusks were transiting Guangxi Province late last year when confiscated by Chinese authorities. Photo: The Beijing News/Zhao Kang
The Illicit Trade In Ivory
Last year, 5,259 elephant tusks were seized worldwide, representing the deaths of 2,670 elephants. Meanwhile, international authorities reported 13 cases of major ivory seizures in 2011, compared with a total 16 such cases during the previous four years.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare, or IFAW, a private animal charity and educational organization, released a survey on June 2 detailing the intricacies of the world’s illegal ivory trade, implicating rising demand from China as the core cause driving a resurgence in the industry.
With China’s nouveau riche seeking ways to show off their social status and look for new investment opportunities as the stock and real-estate markets slow down, luxury animal and art products are becoming increasingly attractive to high-end consumers. As an alternative, ivory, like other traditional symbols of wealth in East Asia, has increasingly been sought after in recent years.
IFAW claimed the 2008 legitimate sale to China of 108 metric tons of old ivory from stockpiles in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe — allowed under the legal authority of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora, or CITES — created heightened demand for the product, which has been sustained in past years due to rising interest in luxury artisan products.
Paul Todd, an IFAW campaigns manager, said the group’s report “proves what many of us feared would happen — the stockpile sales provided easy cover for illegal ivory to enter the markets in China.” Todd added that the brief opening in effect signaled to Chinese and other consumers that dealing in ivory was “OK again” after it had been banned for years.
Todd noted that poaching in Central and West Africa may have a disproportionate impact on elephant populations on the continent, since numbers there are smaller to begin with, and they may in fact represent a uniquely endemic forest-dwelling species.
That has led to fears of conservation experts that after 30 years of regaining population numbers, the African elephant may once again be in peril due to hunting and poaching.