China takes the fight to ivory smugglers while elephant herds shrink


China News

Date Published
China has long been blamed by international community for increasing poaching of wild elephants in Africa, because of its growing ivory consumption. Animal protection groups say a growing demand in the Chinese market for ivory has caused poaching and smuggling, while the Chinese authorities argue that the government long fought hard against illegal ivory trading.
Before Resson Kantai, a project officer at Save the Elephants (STE) came to China, she thought she would see people on the streets wearing earrings or necklaces made of ivory. But she was surprised when people she talked to responded in confusion, “What does this have to do with me? I’ve never even seen ivory before; I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Her confusion was perhaps understandable for someone who had never been to China; the founder of the Kenya-based NGO, Ian Douglas, repeatedly said that even though China is on the other side of the planet, it controls the future of African elephants.
Although China came late to the ivory market, after countries like Great Britain, the US and Japan, as of late demand from those places has dried up. This has made China the center of attention for many animal protection organizations, who say the legal status of ivory market in China is protection for illegal trade.
But Chinese authorities don’t agree with these allegations. Meng Xianlin, the executive director general of China’s Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora Import and Export Management Office, told the media in 2013 that the increase in elephant poaching can’t be blamed entirely on the need of the Chinese market, but is due to a variety of reasons.
Disappearing elephants
Kantai came to China in June, with Chris Kiarie, the China contact for Kenya-based NGO Wildlife Direct. Together they visited a legal ivory trade market. When one of the shop owners found out Kiarie speaks Chinese, he showed him a photo of one piece of ivory sold for 10,000 yuan ($1,632.52).
The shop owner was even happier when he found out Kiarie was from Kenya, Kiarie told the Phoenix Weekly. He showed Kiarie another photo, of two Kenyan business partners who were poachers or illegal traders.
Kiarie didn’t recognize these people in the photos, but he has seen many poachers and illegal traders in local courts in Kenya, he told the Phoenix Weekly. Some people have even said to him, “We have lots of elephants, killing a couple won’t matter.”
But in reality, the death rate of African elephants from poaching has surpassed the natural growth rate of the elephant population. According to a report released by the CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Secretariat on June 13, the number of poached elephants started to increase drastically in 2005.
In the past three years, an average of 20,000 elephants were poached every year. Researchers believe over 10 million elephants lived in Africa at the beginning of the last century. The number decreased to about 1.2 million by 1980. Now there are less than 500,000.
As elephant herds in central Africa thinned out, poachers turned east and south to satisfy growing demand. In recent years, even countries such as Botswana, which devotes significant funding to wildlife protection, had reports of poaching, while Cape Town became a hotspot for ivory trading.
“The new wave of elephant slaughter is more severe than the crisis in the 1970s and the 1980s,” Douglas told the Phoenix Weekly. He conducted research on the living conditions of African elephants in the 1970s and was the first to warn the world about the severity of elephant poaching.
Rise of the Chinese market
From 1850 to 1910, London was the world’s trading center for ivory. The US became the center of ivory consumption at the beginning of the 20th century, while Japan dominated the market from the 1960s to the 1990s.
The international community banned the international commercial trade of ivory in 1989. But in 2007, Japan and China were granted the right by CITES to a one-time purchase of ivory from Africa. Japan was allowed to buy 40 tons, while China was granted 62 tons.
In media interviews, Meng has said that, following the one-time purchase, China did not completely ban buying and selling of ivory domestically, but rather has set the limit on the amount of legal consumption at six tons per year.
Zhang Li, a member of the Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants group under CITES and an associate professor at the College of Life Sciences at the Beijing Normal University, told the Phoenix Weekly that since 2007, the number of ivory processing factories in China has increased from 9 to 37, while the number of locations where ivory is sold has increased from 31 to 150.
“But the amount [from the one-time purchase] isn’t enough for all these factories and shops. There’s a big market and not enough legal ivory, which has stimulated ivory smuggling, especially smuggling into China,” Zhang said.
He thinks the ivory market in China has drifted away from the traditional sale of crafts, with ivory becoming a status symbol. As a result of the rising demands in China and falling demand in other countries, China has become a new “target” for many animal protection organizations.
The Chinese government mandates that all ivory products in China should be sold together with a certificate provided by the State Forestry Administration.
But according to a 2011 inspection by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), out of 158 ivory processing and points of sale in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Fujian Province, 59.6 percent of legally licensed ivory enterprises also have a hand in illegal trade. They mix legal and illegal material so that smuggled ivory can be sold without drawing suspicion, the Phoenix Weekly reported.
Meanwhile, market demand has driven up the price of ivory. According to a report released by STE in June, the price of raw ivory on the Chinese market increased from $750 per kilogram in 2010 to $2,100 per kilogram in 2014. The report said because the price of ivory in China is 10 times the price in Africa, poachers and organized crime now have increased incentive to smuggle ivory to China.
But the Chinese government doesn’t entirely agree with such accusations. Meng told media in 2013 that “China has always taken strict measures regulating the ivory trade … there are many reasons elephant poaching activities are on the rise, it can’t be blamed on the market demand in China.”
A tough fight
China has indeed stepped up efforts to regulate the ivory trade. As Meng says, there are other factors contributing to the increasing organized crimes around poaching and smuggling.
Zhang told the Phoenix Weekly that 10 years ago, China could only intercept 10 percent of the ivory smuggled into the country; now it intercepts 80 to 90 percent, a sign of the government’s determination to stamp out ivory smuggling.
“So we can ask, from the elephant poaching in African countries, to transporting and smuggling the ivory into other countries, there are so many links. Why don’t any other countries crack down before it reaches China?” Zhang asked.
The Chinese government has also become more vocal on the matter. On January 6, the State Forestry Administration and the General Administration of Customs publicly destroyed 6.1 tons of confiscated ivory in Dongguan, South China’s Guangdong Province, to demonstrate their dedication to cracking down on illegal ivory trade and protecting wildlife. It was also the first time authorities on the Chinese mainland destroy confiscated ivory.
Authorities also released information showing that China has investigated 930 criminal cases involving smuggling endangered species in the past decade, while arresting and prosecuting 1,395 suspects.
One month before Kantai’s arrival in China, on May 10, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said at the African summit of the World Economic Forum that the Chinese government will provide Africa 10 million dollars in aid to protect its wildlife resources.
Aid is coming from both central and local governments, with additional help from NGOs. Starting on May 26, the Guangzhou customs office and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) started a week-long campaign against ivory coming across the border.
But the effort may not be enough. The Southern Weekly reported that the forestry bureau doesn’t have enough staff to deal with the ivory black market in China, while the administration for industry and commerce doesn’t have the power to confiscate illegal goods, and public security departments have higher priority targets.
The Southern Weekly report described a surprise inspection at Panjiayuan – a well-known market in Beijing – in 2007, during which officers from the forestry, public security and administration for industry and commerce cooperated. But two hours before the surprise inspection, all the sales stalls in the Panjiayuan black market were cleared out.
In 2011, an uncertified ivory salesperson told an inspector, “Usually 10 days before government sends someone here for inspections, we will get tipped off by phone.” When questioned further, she refused to talk.
Under such circumstances, pushing for policy change and getting the public to act might be a solution. Simon Hedges, a scientist at the elephant protection group of WCS, told the Phoenix Weekly.
“Rhinoceros horns were once popular in Korea and Japan. But the demand decreased because of import and domestic trade bans, as well efforts by the government to educate the public,” he said. “Saving the elephants in crisis might require the same level of cooperation.”