The Ivory War: Soaring Chinese Demand for Ivory Is Fueling an Illegal Trade That Threatens to Wipe out Africa's Elephants

By Smith, Patricia | New York Times Upfront, February 3, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Ivory War: Soaring Chinese Demand for Ivory Is Fueling an Illegal Trade That Threatens to Wipe out Africa's Elephants


Smith, Patricia, New York Times Upfront


Huge piles of elephant tusks, ornate ivory carvings, and trinkets--worth more than $12 million--were fed into a crushing machine in the Chinese city of Dongguan last month and turned into dust.

Chinese state television broadcast the event live, with government officials, foreign diplomats, and wildlife advocates on hand to raise awareness in China of the dramatic scale of elephant poaching.

China is the world's largest market for ivory, and in the past few years an explosion in demand has fed a vast illegal trade that's threatening to wipe out Africa's elephants. It's also fueling wars, enriching corrupt armies, and jeopardizing wildlife tourism. Scientists estimate that tens of thousands of elephants are being killed each year for their ivory, which sells for more than $1,000 a pound on the black market.

"The Chinese hold the key to the elephants' future," says lain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants, which is based in Kenya. "If things continue the way they are, many countries could lose their elephants altogether."

In 1989, the United Nations-backed Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, known as CITES, banned the sale of ivory to stop what conservationists called an elephant "holocaust."

Death by Cyanide

Herds were just beginning to recover when CITES officials agreed in 2008 to a controversial one-time auction of stockpiled African ivory, with the money going toward wildlife conservation. As part of the deal, the Chinese government began tracking every trinket and carving produced from the 68 tons of auctioned ivory it won. The hope was that a flood of cheap, regulated ivory would undercut the illegal ivory trade, saving more elephants.

But that's not what happened. Instead, the regulated ivory trade has provided unscrupulous Chinese carvers and collectors with the camouflage to buy and sell contraband ivory.

That has accelerated the slaughter of elephants for their ivory--both in the wild and in wildlife preserves--all over sub-Saharan Africa. Poachers shoot the animals and hack off their tusks, leaving the carcasses behind. Last fall, poachers in Zimbabwe put cyanide in watering holes in a national park, killing more than 80 elephants. And increasingly well armed poachers no longer hesitate to kill wildlife rangers who try to protect the animals.

Because ivory is so easily converted into cash, it's now helping fuel conflicts across the continent. Some of Africa's most notorious armed groups are hunting down elephants and using the tusks to buy weapons. Organized crime groups are helping move the ivory around the world, exploiting Africa's turbulent states and porous borders, with corrupt officials from Africa to China providing assistance.

But it's not just outlaws cashing in. Members of some of the African armies that the U.S. government supports with millions of taxpayer dollars--like the Ugandan military, the Congolese army, and South Sudan's military--have been implicated in poaching elephants and dealing in ivory.

Ivory & Chinese Culture

The booming ivory trade is largely a result of soaring demand among China's growing middle class. As China's economy continues to expand, millions more Chinese have the money to spend on luxuries like ivory statues, bookmarks, rings, and combs.

Ivory is etched deeply into Chinese culture. 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 make the skin beautiful.

"Love for ivory is in our blood," says Wu Shaohua, president of the Shanghai Collectors Association.

At one ivory shop in Shanghai, shelves bulge with an array of carved ivory bookmarks, chopsticks, and idols. A large tusk carved with pagodas, palm trees, and robed scholars sells for more than $200,000.

One environmental group estimates that up to 90 percent of the ivory in China is illegal. …

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