Booming trade in mammoth ivory fuels fears over elephants


Neil Connor, The Telegraph

Date Published

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After being incarcerated in permafrost for thousands of years, global warming has seen woolly mammoths being taken from the ground as demand for ivory fuels a legal trade in the remains of the extinct species.

But concerns have been raised that the booming market for mammoth tusks could have a devastating effect on their modern-day cousins – African elephants.

Experts say about 10 million of the ancient creatures lie encased in the Arctic tundra, and the melting of the ice cap has seen about 60 tonnes of mammoth tusks a year being exported out of Siberia, with almost all of it ending up in China. 

China has for decades been a magnet for poached elephant ivory, but Beijing has pledged to shutdown the trade by the end of the year.

The decision was praised as a “game-changer” by animal conservationists, who say between 30-40,000 elephants each year are killed for their tusks.

Around 20 million African elephants existed before European colonisation, decreasing to 1.3 million in 1979, while less than 400,000 are now thought to remain in the wild.

But demand for elephant ivory in the world’s biggest market will never be fully stamped out, campaigners say, if mammoth ivory continues to be traded.

Sun Quanhui, an activist at World Animal Protection in China, said: “Research shows that some dealers claim to be selling elephant ivory instead of mammoth tusks because it can be can be sold at a higher price.

“This can only stimulate overall demand for ivory, and in particular elephant ivory.”

The woolly mammoth roamed across Europe, Asia, Africa and North America before the last Ice Age, vanishing 4,500 years ago, probably due to a combination of climate change and hunting by humans.

Tusks from the giant animals appear identical to elephant ivory, apart from tiny markings and faint colours that can be identified by specialists.

Indeed, more than 50 percent of ivory sold into China is thought to be mammoth tusks.

This not only fuels the overall trade in ivory, but also helps sustain a carving industry which has a vested interest in seeing illegal ivory come onto the market, campaigners say.

Keith Guo, China spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), said mammoth tusks provide a “protective umbrella” for the wider ivory industry which ensures that “demand will always exist”.

China does, however, appear to be losing its taste for ivory following the launch of a government crackdown on extravagance and graft launched by Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, when he assumed power in 2013.

Attitudes have also changed thanks to an awareness campaign fronted by celebrities, such as actress Li Bingbing, who has appeared in Hollywood blockbusters.

Save the Elephants said the price of ivory in China had decreased from $2,100 (£1,640) per kilogram in early 2014 to $730 (£570) in February 2017.

Animal campaigners received more good news last month when China said it closed 67 ivory carving factories and retail shops, roughly one-third of the total.

The move was seen as a strong signal that Beijing was serious about its pledge to stamp out the trade in elephant tusks.

The belief that China’s middle classes may have followed trends from Victorian Britain or Japan in the 1960s and 70s  – where well-off consumers turned their backs on ivory – has led to growing calls for the trade in mammoth tusks to be left unfettered, or even encouraged.

Douglas MacMillan, Professor of Conservation and Applied Resource Economics in the School of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent, said: “An outright ban may only succeed in bolstering key players in the black market as businesses seek to maintain activity.”

At the Shilihe antique and crafts market in Beijing, mammoth ivory traders say demand for their products has increased in recent years as consumers seek out alternative ornaments for their homes.

“It is not only global warming that has seen the market grow, there is huge demand from consumers in China and Europe,” said the boss of Heshunzhai Mammoth Ivory Plant, who would only give his surname, Zhang.

Mr Zhang  said claims that the trade in mammoth tusks fuel elephant poaching is “nonsense”.

“Mammoths are the new replacement for elephant ivory,” he said. “They will help stop elephants being killed.”

A ban on the international trade in elephant ivory was imposed in 1989, but tusks are still imported into China via sanctioned sales from Africa.

The ivory is commonly sculptured at one of China’s many carving factories.

Animal campaigners fear allowing legal mammoth ivory into these factories would increase the risk of illegal elephant tusks finding their way into the domestic market.

But Zheng Suisheng, one of China’s most well-known ivory carvers, believes mammoth tusks could help preserve the ancient carving industry, which is designated an ‘intangible cultural heritage’ by Beijing.

“The ban on elephant ivory has indeed brought problems for our art,” he said.

“We no longer have any materials to carve.”

Mr Zheng, who is from Wenzhou in the eastern Zhejiang province, said the craft, which is widely-respected in China, will die out if Beijing bans the trade in mammoth tusks.

“I don’t even dare to teach my son how to do carvings on elephant ivory,” said Mr Zheng, who says his skill was passed down through generations of his family.

“What are we do if there is a shortage of raw materials in the future?”