Note: this article refers to a report that was announced in early December. For those who might have missed that story. the report can be found at:
A new report has traced the Chinese markets where raw tusks from elephants killed in Africa are turned into statues and other traditional carvings.
China maintains a legal ivory market, but this is clearly overwhelmed by illegal ivory markets spattered across big cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
“Law enforcement has not kept up with this huge expansion in the illegal ivory in China, where it is the largest in the world,” says the report, China Faces A Conservation Challenge, by Kenya-based conservationists Lucy Vigne and Esmond Martin.
The two experts toured Shanghai and Beijing in April and May last year, visiting ivory factories, both licensed and unlicensed, and the high-end shops where the ivory products are finally sold.
The artifacts are skillfully sculptured by young Chinese closely mentored by older artists. “Retail prices for ivory items have skyrocketed, and some business people are optimistic about future economic benefits of trading in ivory,” says the report.
Dr Martin told the Star the booming ivory market is fed by increasingly wealthy mainland Chinese who now buy 90 per cent of the final products.
The country has 37 licensed ivory carving factories who access their ivory in several ways. First, the government provides them a limited supply of raw ivory every year from official stocks. They can also access privately held legal stocks, the 62 tonnes bought from Southern Africa in 2008, and new legal stocks imports from Europe.
“There is, however, a parallel illegal ivory trade continuing in the country, fueled by ivory from elephants, poached mainly from Africa but also from Asia,” Martin and Lucy note in the report.
Some of it feeds the licensed factories, but most of it goes to illegal factories and black-market dealers.
China is the main importer of illegal tusks in the world, responsible for the deaths of 25,000 elephants in Africa in 2013.
In Kenya, 164 elephants were either poisoned or shot dead by poachers last year and their tusks hacked off. Most of it was smuggled through the jungle and shipped to China – for the ‘second death’.
Ivory carving has been part of Chinese culture for thousands of years. The industry slumped after the 1990 CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) ban that prohibited international ivory trade. However, domestic ivory trade remained legal in China.
While today in Kenya you may earn 20 years in prison for possessing an ivory product, in China you can freely carry around a whole polished tusk.
The country lobbied for a one-off sale in 2008 from stockpiles in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
The sale triggered an unending flood of ivory poaching to meet rising demand in China.
The report, published late last year, notes that Beijing has three times more illegal than legal ivory sale outlets, while Shanghai has eight times more illegal than legal shops.
However, the largest number of ivory items are available in the legal outlets, where they are marked with collection cards.
“In Beijing, 16 per cent of the ivory items surveyed were in illegal outlets and 84 per cent (with collection cards) in legal outlets.
In Shanghai, 37 per cent of the ivory items surveyed were in illegal outlets and 63 per cent in legal outlets,” says the report funded by conservation organisations Save the Elephants and the Aspinall Foundation.
Prices for both legal and illegal ivory have skyrocketed over the years, making the business more attractive.
The average black market wholesale price for a tusk of good quality paid by a factory or carver in Beijing was US$2,100 (Sh191,100) per kilogramme in early 2014.
Prices for the government stock pile are generally lower than black market prices partly because those obtained in 2008 came in cheaply at US$150 (Sh13,650) per kilogramme.
“The government limits the total amount to about five tonnes a year for all the 37 ivory factories in China, making 135 kg available per factory annually in average, a relatively small amount,” the report says.
The final products are however much more expensive. For instance, two pairs of ivory chopsticks in one shop were being sold for an equivalent of US$2,754 (Sh250,614).
China also allows sale of ivory from mammoth, freely, because they are now extinct. However, a lot of illegal elephant ivory is always mixed up with the mammoth and sold.
Like Kenya, the country has also stiffened laws and some ivory smugglers have been jailed for life since 2012.
“Which makes you wonder, why do Chinese people still take risks to smuggle ivory out of Africa, yet they know if they are caught they are finished?” Dr Martin asks.