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.
At the time, Allan Thornton, of the Environmental Investigation Agency, expressed concern the sale would fuel a massive appetite for ivory in China. "In a country of 1.3 billion people, demand for ivory from just a fraction of one per cent of the population is colossal," he told the Telegraph newspaper.
Ivory has been banned since 1989 after decades of poaching in which Africa's elephant population was halved with only around 600,000 remaining by 1997, according to conservation groups.
The CITES secretariat in Geneva noted a trend of long-time expatriate Chinese residents in Africa getting heavily involved in the trade, while quite a number of lower-level ivory couriers recently arrested have been mainland Chinese residents.
While most countries enforce the ban on ivory, in recent years China and Japan have been permitted to buy non-poached ivory from several African countries in a move aimed at raising money for wildlife conservation, and to smother demand for poached ivory with a steady flow of cheaper tusks.
"If the demand is supplied by legal origin ivory, then that should begin to close the doors for the criminals," said John Sellar, a senior enforcement officer for CITES in Geneva.
He added the two-decade long ivory ban had helped stabilize overall elephant numbers, with only scattered local populations under any real serious threat from poachers in countries such as Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
While only around 4,000 wild tigers remain worldwide, he noted, in Botswana alone there are more than 130,000 wild elephants.
"The elephant as a species is no way in danger," he added.
Within China, officials who regulate the domestic ivory trade said there hasn't been a conspicuous increase in ivory consumption given tight laws and controls that restrict ivory sales and manufacturing to some 130 addresses nationwide.
Yet this year alone, an extra 37 stores were approved as new, official ivory retail outlets.
There have also been telling signs on the ground.
In Guangzhou's antiques market, numerous stalls were openly selling uncertified ivory from trinkets to large carved tusks.
"I can get you as much as you like," said one dealer with the surname Wu, who was asking 8000 yuan ($1,172) for a small carved ivory Buddha's head and a similar price for an elaborate fan.
"Come back later this afternoon," she added.
At another stall in the market, a small painted tusk was prominently displayed in a bustling alleyway.
"Guangzhou has especially close economic ties with Africa and there are tens of thousands of African (traders) there, so we cannot discount the possibility they are bringing ivory in," said Wan Ziming, the director of law enforcement and training at the CITES management authority of China.
"Guangzhou has become a hub for the smuggling of ivory," added Wan whose department which is under the Chinese government's State Forestry Administration.
CITES rejects claims by animal rights groups that controlled ivory sales worsen the illegal trade, instead saying poaching levels are more closely linked to governance problems and political instability in African regions.
But Professor Xu Hongfa, the China director of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, says enforcement needs to improve across China with evidence of contraband ivory seeping across China to places as far afield as Tibet.
A TRAFFIC researcher currently carrying out field investigations across China and who requested anonymity given the sensitive nature of her work, says the illegal ivory trade is now rife across China with contraband ivory at least a third cheaper than in official stores.
Meanwhile, after having been starved of fresh African ivory for years and scraping by on rare and price excavated mammoth tusks, Chinese carvers hope the recent availability of ivory will keep their ancient craft alive.
"This will help us survive," said 77-year-old Li Dingning who has watched Guangzhou's once booming ivory industry get whittled down to around 100 master carvers including himself.
"Only if you have the raw materials to work with, will people learn (to carve ivory). If not, then everyone will find other jobs," Li added.
Carvers are banking on more of China's affluent masses buying their wares which are seen as status symbols and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"Before the 1990's you couldn't buy ivory within China. We used to only export our carvings," Li said, as he stood before a monumental ivory boat carved from a single massive tusk, with thousands of miniature figurines milling over multiple decks.
"But now it can be freely circulated so there are more people than ever who want to buy ivory carvings and products."
Editing by Megan Goldin