PUZHAI, China â€” Chinese investors
have anointed it â€śwhite gold.â€ť Carvers and collectors prefer the term â€śorganic
gemstone.â€ť 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.
â€śWe call them bloody
teeth,â€ť 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
To the outrage of conservation groups trying to stop the slaughter
of African elephants and the embarrassment of Chinese law enforcement agencies,
Xingâ€™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
â€śThe Chinese hold the key to the elephantsâ€™ future,â€ť said Iain
Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save
the Elephants. â€śIf things
continue the way they are, many countries could lose their elephants
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 â€” and the incentive
for poaching â€” 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 Africaâ€™s elephants are being
slaughtered at the highest rate in two decades, largely to satisfy soaring
demand among Chinaâ€™s growing middle class. â€śChina is clearly driving the
illegal ivory trade more than any other nation on earth,â€ť said Tom Milliken, an
elephant expert with the wildlife trade-monitoring network Traffic.
Things were meant to turn out differently. In 1989, the United
Nations-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 â€śholocaust.â€ť
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 yearâ€™s total, according to the China Association of
Auctioneers. â€śBuyers wouldnâ€™t even take home the carvings they bought before
putting them up for bid again,â€ť 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 â€” as does the bloodshed.
The Chinese Market
First opened in 1898, the Old Phoenix Auspicious Jade and Ivory
Carving Company in Shanghai is a tradition-bound shrine to Chinaâ€™s newfound
prosperity. Its shelves bulge with cabbage-shaped jade carvings and coral
broaches, though customers mostly come for the blindingly white array of ivory
bookmarks, chopsticks and idols. In one corner, spotlights illuminate a large
tusk carved into a 360-degree-panorama of pagodas, palm trees and robed
scholars. The price: about $205,000.
Upstairs, more than a dozen
carvers in blue uniforms hunch silently over desks as they whittle away at
pieces of polished tusk. Most were hired fresh out of art school after the
stockpile sale in 2008. The scene deeply satisfies Zhou Bai, 58, a master
carver who first learned to carve ivory at 17.
â€śWhen the ban was passed in
â€™89, I was sad this art would die with me,â€ť said Mr. Zhou, who was busy turning
a three-foot-long tusk into a fanciful temple surrounded by clouds. â€śBut now we
have the opportunity to keep it alive.â€ť
Each carving comes with a government issued-certificate that
includes a serial number; items over 50 grams must have a photo ID. But
conservationists say the system has been widely corrupted.
Take, for example, the white ivory shavings that piled up below
Mr. Zhouâ€™s carved tusk. Asked about what became of the highly prized powder,
Mr. Zhou said it was regularly collected by local forestry department
employees, who sell it for use as a traditional Chinese elixir believed to
fight cancer. The State Forestry Administration, however, denied that its
employees have anything to do with the powder.
Yan Zhong, the companyâ€™s general manager, pointed to a gold plaque
on the wall as proof that all his ivory comes from the state. The license, he
said, also gives his customers peace of mind. â€śAll our ivory fell off elephants
after they died, so itâ€™s ethical,â€ť he said. â€śIf the tusks were just left to
rot, it would be such a waste.â€ť
Yet registration certificates have themselves become valuable
commodities in the ivory-laundering business, according to a 2011 investigation
by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Vendors have been found reusing
identification certificates or selling them to unlicensed dealers. The owner of
one formerly illegal carving factory told investigators he paid about $321,000
for a license, which is officially free of charge.
The State Forestry Administration, which oversees the legal ivory
trade, says it expels about three vendors each year for breaking the rules.
Since the ivory ban was rescinded, the number of licensed businesses has risen
to 37 carving factories and 145 shops.
So, too, have prices. At the auction in 2008, the state-owned
enterprises paid $71 a pound, then immediately flipped their first quota from
their ivory purchases to factories for up to $530 a pound. Today, raw ivory
costs more than $1,300 a pound. Just how much illegal ivory has crept into the
country is a matter of dispute, but wildlife organizations say there is not
nearly enough legal supply to match the amount officially sold across China.
â€śIf you look at the volume on the market, itâ€™s nonsense,â€ť said Mary Rice,
executive director of the independent Environmental Investigation
estimates that up to 90 percent of the ivory in China is illegal.
Conservation group investigators say licensed factories often
supplement official purchases with smuggled ivory, sometimes by adding illegal
pieces to legitimate carvings. One factory owner privately acknowledged that
the 330 pounds of legal ivory he acquires annually lasts just one month. The
rest, he said, is bought on the black market.
To conservationists, the open sale of contraband ivory is just as
vexing. At the Chengtian antiques market in Beijing, eight stalls sold
unregistered ivory carvings. Fingering a cream-colored Buddha pendant he was
selling for about $800, the vendor explained how to hide it from the authorities.
â€śJust wear it around your neck,â€ť he said. â€śNo need for a certificate.â€ť
When asked if they were afraid of being arrested, the vendors
confided that, much like sellers of pirated DVDs and books, they receive ample
warning before the rare police crackdown. â€śAs long as we dare to sell, itâ€™s
safe for you to buy,â€ť one woman said.
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 traditional
opera, kung fu and acupuncture.
â€śLove for ivory is in our blood,â€ť said Wu Shaohua, president of
the Shanghai Collectors Association. In a society where Rolexes and Louis
Vuitton bags are sometimes bought by the dozen, many Chinese believe that
giving a trinket carved from elephant tusk confers the highest honor. â€śIt says
this relationship is as precious as ivory,â€ť he said.
Mr. Wu said he thinks the prestige and artistry of ivory may
outweigh, for enthusiasts, any potential concerns over its provenance.
nternational conservation groups
and the Chinese government have tried to raise awareness. In Africa, home to at
least a 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 the basketball
star Yao Ming, link poaching to smuggled ivory. The Chinese news media
frequently reports the arrests of Chinese smugglers.
But the governmentâ€™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 â€śsouvenirsâ€ť in their luggage, a policy that
confuses potential collectors, say conservation groups.
Then there is the emphasis on ivory carving as a hallowed
tradition. A Chinese television documentary about the Beijing Ivory Carving
Factoryâ€™s efforts to revive the ancient craft never broached the subject of
poaching or explained that â€śelephant teeth,â€ť as ivory is called in Mandarin, do
not just fall out.
One shopper, a government worker who had seen the documentary,
seemed unconcerned with the fate of Africaâ€™s herds as she browsed the Beijing
Ivory Carving Factory showroom in January. â€śAs long as the quality of the ivory
is good, who cares what happened to the elephant,â€ť she said.
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
Some cannot resist turning their hobby into income. 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 vs. Illegal
But critics say the governmentâ€™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 â€” their third large ivory seizure in
In 2010, the authorities in Macau found 2,200 pounds of ivory,
including some six-and-a-half-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 Chinaâ€™s largest seizures ever: 707
tusks, 32 ivory bracelets and a rhino horn, all hidden inside boxes in the back
of a truck.
To conservationists, such huge confiscations are proof that the
legal ivory experiment is a failure. â€śSeizures are not an indication of
success,â€ť said Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia director for the International Fund for
Animal Welfare. â€śThis is just the tip of the iceberg.â€ť
Xing, the trafficker, sees the confiscations as the result of poor
â€śNever use your own car,â€ť he said, as his workers blithely posed
for photographs with two enormous tusks he had just pulled from a cabinet. Xing
confided that he often pays people to carry tusks over the lush mountains that
span the notoriously porous Vietnamese border. When that fails, his connections
with border guards on the night shift prove indispensable.
Once the tusks cross into China, Xing uses what he calls his
â€śspecial channelâ€ť: vehicles belonging to the Peopleâ€™s Liberation Army, a tactic
that ensures no one comes nosing around. A conspirator in Shanghai who operates
a factory takes care of the carving. Shipping for a pair of tusks, he said,
costs about $800, and takes just five days to reach Beijing.
Chinese officials deny that corruption plays any role in the
illegal ivory trade. Rather, they say, their countryâ€™s huge size and enormous
population make it impossible to wipe out the trafficking. â€śThere are always
fish that slip through the net,â€ť said Meng Xianlin, executive director general
of Chinaâ€™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 Beijingâ€™s failings.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman said last month that Chinese law
enforcement had â€śeffectively curbedâ€ť ivory smuggling.
On Sunday, the Cites delegations will gather in Bangkok for what
is set to be a particularly contentious conference. While both China and
Thailand are to be named as the biggest illegal ivory markets, only Thailand,
which has no legal ivory trade system in place, is under pressure to crack down
on ivory sales.
In fact, the Chinese government is lobbying to ease restrictions
on ivory trade. Despite the continuing decimation of the African elephant, Mr.
Meng, the wildlife trade official, has insisted that herds could endure a
robust international ivory trade. He wrote last year to the Cites Secretariat,
saying that China should be allowed to buy confiscated tusks from poached
elephants in addition to those legally obtained. Asian demand, he wrote,
required about 220 tons of raw ivory â€” equaling the lives of roughly 20,000
elephants â€” every year.