Egypt’s ivory sellers thrive as police turn a blind eye


Bel Trew, The Times

Date Published
Tucked away in a back alley, up a crumbling staircase, is Abu Mohamed’s workshop, where he carves and sells illegal ivory goods in the heart of Cairo’s historic bazaar.
“It’s the best quality from Kenya,” he said, brandishing an elephant tusk intricately inscribed with Quranic verses. Behind him, dusty glass cabinets are bursting with ivory figurines, bracelets and walking sticks.
Abu Mohamed inherited the business from his father and has a factory where many other sellers also sculpt larger items that they sell to tourists.
“The biggest piece we ever had was two metres long,” he said, pointing to a photo of the enormous tusk that he had stuck up on the wall.
Despite a ban on ivory trading, Egypt is one of Africa’s largest markets for the illegal trade, according to Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network.
The main sales hub is Khan al-Khalili, a bustling Cairo souk and popular destination for tours in Egypt, where vendors sell the illegal wares alongside resin sphinxes and plastic pyramids. Luxor, another tourist town, is also a sales hub.
Last year, global ivory seizures hit a record high, with the majority occurring in east Africa. Hundreds of elephants have been slaughtered by organised crime networks to keep the business going.
As a result, the African elephant population has dropped from five million to only 400,000 in the past century, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
On Tuesday, Interpol launched an environmental crime unit, based in Nairobi, to combat the trade. Its focus will be Egypt.
Despite mounting pressure from environmental groups, there have been only nine police seizures of ivory shipments in Egypt in the past two years, and retail outlets have been largely left alone.
The vendors at Khan al-Khalili say the security forces never check their shops, although inspections are meant to be carried out every three months. There are thought to be more than 8,000 ivory items for sale in Cairo, described by Traffic as the “carving centre of the country”, but nobody has inspected a single stall.
Most of the ivory is transported from Kenya, Tanzania and Ivory Coast via Sudan, over land or by air.
“We just slip a bit of money to the police when the raw material is brought through the airport,” Abu Mohamed said. Sometimes the tusks are painted to look like wood. Prices range from £125 to just under £400 per kilo. However, the finished product can fetch thousands of dollars.
The biggest buyers are the Chinese, who see possession of elephant ivory as a status symbol.
Abu Mohamed even sells his goods online to customers across the world.
None of the vendors was worried about Interpol’s new efforts, explaining that the Egyptian police had bigger problems to worry about than the illegal ivory trade.
“If the authorities were ever to come here we’d tell them it’s camel bone,” said a seller called Amr. “They are too stupid to know the difference.”