China ivory demand bodes ill for Africa's elephants

Mon Nov 9, 2009 7:08pm EST
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By James Pomfret and Tom Kirkwood

GUANGZHOU/NAIROBI (Reuters) - Tucked into a grimy building in Guangzhou, a small band of Chinese master carvers chip away at ivory tusks with chisels, fashioning them into the sorts of intricate carvings that were prized by Chinese emperors.

A passion for ivory ornaments such as these is what helped decimate African and Asian elephant populations until a 1989 ban on ivory trade. Today, China's economic rise, and along with it a seemingly insatiable appetite for status symbols by its nouveau riche, has spurred demand for African ivory.

In remote pockets of Africa, such as the Tsavo East region in Kenya where giraffe wander lazily across tarmac freshly laid by Chinese laborers; and in teeming market towns on the banks of the Nile in Sudan where Chinese barter and buy ivory openly; the Chinese imprint is conspicuous and growing.

"The Chinese are all over Africa and are buying up ivory, worked and raw," said Esmond Martin, a conservationist who has closely tracked Chinese involvement in the black market ivory trade.

"The last time I was up in Khartoum or Omdurman I found that about 75 percent of all the ivory being sold was bought by Chinese," he added.

In a 2007 report, the U.N.-backed CITES, the global wildlife trade watchdog, said China faced a "major challenge" as it continues to be the "most important country globally as a destination for illicit ivory," exacerbated in part by China's spreading influence and ties in Africa.

Chinese nationals have been arrested and convicted for ivory smuggling in Africa and organized crime gangs are also involved in bringing large quantities of illicit ivory into China, according to the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency.

In a controversial bid to stem illegal poaching, CITES allowed a 62-tonne batch of elephant tusks to be imported legally into China last year. The ivory stockpiles were bought by Chinese traders at auctions.   Continued...