By Jialu Zhang
When Darren Porgieter was the section manager at Niassa National Reserve in the north of Mozambique, he was known as "pilot conservationist", combating poachers with aerial surveillance. "Yes, I’ve seen countless elephant corpses," he admitted, "even piles of corpses, sometimes over 50, 60 all together."
Darren could never forget the day when he just landed by helicopter and about to rush into bushes and start searching for poachers. Gunfire suddenly broke out. "Following the sound, I saw a male elephant with half of his face cut away, lying on the ground. His trunk was thrown aside, and he was still alive, bleeding," Darren said, "It’s all because of his tusk-- ivory."
According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), in the last 20 years, around 33,000 elephants were butchered every year, and at this rate, African elephants will be extinct in ten years. Though the direct cause of extinction is arguably the poaching, simply a curb on poaching might not solve the problem. From the half-torn-faced elephant, many more hands are stained with blood.
Why is China the world leader when it comes to ivory trade?
China has the highest demand of ivory among the world that directly leads to the extinction of African elephants. Ivory seizures across the world suggest that some 25,000 to 50,000 elephants were slaughtered in 2011 to furnish the demand of ivory, and then made into ornaments, jewelry, chopsticks, and other crafts.
Almost every Sunday morning, Professor Zhang would go to Songxian Bridge antique market in Chengdu, to enrich his collections. As an experienced art collector and archaeologist in Sichuan University, he made good use of his professional eyes. "I don’t buy ivory carvings, the price is unreasonable high lately," he said, "I favor jade carvings. But I have an ivory carved statue of Buddha inherit from my father. Five years ago, I almost sold it for four thousand dollars. Now it is worth at least five times as much."
Compared to traditional investments in China, such as stocks and real estate, ivory seems to have a better value of investment. Through the entire history of China, ivory has always been a desired commodity as a symbol of status and wealth. Its ornamental beauty and invest value has been described as "white gold" for centuries. A spokesman for a collection association asserted on a CCTV (China Central Television) program that the price of ivory collectibles is increasing by 30% every year, yet ivory products still cannot meet the strong market demand. On one side, Chinese investors plough money into art-based markets, including ivory carvings, paintings, jade, mahogany furniture and drive up the price at domestic market; on the other side, with the economic rise of China and its currency being stronger, Chinese ivory buyers are powerfully positioned in the global ivory market.
In 2006, ivory carving was selected as a national intangible cultural heritage in China. According to the National People’s Congress, ivory carving as an art form needs to be supported and protected as a major cultural heritage and outstanding folk art. Around that time, not many people made the connection between cultural heritages in China and barbaric bloody elephant slaughter in Africa.
As one third of the tusk is growing inside the living elephant’s skull, the easiest way of getting out a complete piece and high quality ivory is to kill the elephant. With the slaughtering and life-threatening infection from broken tusk, African elephants are in danger.
According to a survey conducted by WildAid in 2012, only 33% of Chinese knew that ivory is from poached elephants, and only 46.6% are aware that elephant poaching is a problem. For ivory consumers, it is hard to imagine that buying ivory products is illegal, as they know, when China joined the UN as one of the permanent member states, one of the two official gifts was a large ivory sculpture. The line between legal and illegal ivory trade in China is blurry.
Should ivory trade be legalized?
A survey conducted by CITES revealed that the total sales of ivory in 2011 is estimated to $ 95.4 million, which showed an increase of 170% compared to 2010. There is no doubt that the slaughter of elephants is fueled by growing demand from China, somehow, there are different voices over whether ivory trade should be banned or not.
In 1989, in recognition of the rapid decline in African elephant populations, Parties of CITES voted to prohibit international trade in ivory and other elephant parts and products, while the prohibition came into effect in China in January 1990. One year later, China withdrew and made ivory trade legal under a registration and certification system.
"The legal ivory trade is negligible. 90% of the ivory products you can buy from China are illegal," said Grace Ge Gabriel, the representative of International Fund for Animal (IFAW) in Asia. "The legal trade is shielding a massive illegal trade and confuses the Chinese. Some people don't even care if the ivory they bought is legal or illegal."
In 2011, Grace led a team made up of Chinese-speaking investigators and visited licensed ivory facilities that were specifically selected from a government-approved list. Of the 159 ivory carving and retail outlets visited in the month-long survey, only 57 were licensed. Another 101 were unlicensed and operating illegally. Together, these legal and illegal outlets make available for sale thousands of pieces of ivory.
"The most common form of violation is the abuse of the government-issued ivory identification card," explained Grace, "most identification cards do not match the ivory products and some of them are just self-made cards." It is an open secret between retailers that an identification card itself is also a commodity. "Vendors will try to persuade the buyers not to take the card after they purchase, and use one card repeatedly to launder illegal ivories."
It is getting more obvious that the manufacture and sale of legal ivory products is inciting and disguising a substantial cover for the production and sale of illegal products. Unfortunately, there is no evidence showing the causal connections between legal sales of ivory and elephant population. One might argue, with the prohibition on ivory trade, that the price of ivory rises up and might increase profit-driven poaching. The fact is, in 1997, CITES approved "one-off" sale of ivories, levels of illegal ivory trade decreased in the two years.
In 2008, CITES raised $15 million through the sales of 102 tons of stockpiled ivory for elephant conservation, while China bought 62 tons. According to Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) and the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), poaching and the ivory trade have increased ever since CITES made the decision to allow stockpiles sales in 2008, but the Parties decided not to allow stockpiles sales in 2010, and the poaching and illegal ivory trade increased even more sharply in 2011, leaving some to ask whether the decision not to allow legal ivory trade should be included in any analysis.
Like Grace and Darren, most conservationists oppose the legalization of ivory trade. Among them, Zezhong Wu from CITES Management Authority of China is more optimistic. "With proper supervision and enforcement, legal ivory trade might choke off demand for illicit and discourage the poaching. I’m confident about it," he said.
On March 9th, 2015, CITES China published a notification about implementation of "one-year import suspension of ivory carving" to show its commitment of phasing out the domestic manufacture and sale of ivory products for the first time. On May 29th, 2015, 662 kg of confiscated ivory was destroyed in a public event. Ironically, illegal online trading continues unabated in collection and auction websites. China’s weak government supervision and law enforcement on legal ivory trade and its long failure to crack down on massive illegal ivory trade make a mockery of its claim of being a "responsible great power."
What drives ivory from Africa to China, the boat or the profit?
Like the fire triangle consists of heat, fuel and an oxidizing agent, the trade of ivory cannot happen just by Chinese demand. In every 2 hours, 8 more African elephants are being killed. That is to say, in every 2 hours, buyers, smugglers and poachers hold hands and take 8 lives away.
With an uncontrollable market and unsatisfied demand, poachers on the African continent seized the chance to make a fortune. Reported by CITES, in 2000, the estimated weight of ivory seized was around ten tons; while in 2014, the weight in total had grew by four times. If ivory seizures around the world are estimated at 10% of all illegal ivory, this suggests that the annual "harvest" is more than 240 tons.
Andrea Crosta, Executive Director & Co-Funder at Elephant Action League (EAL), has devoted 25 years at the front-line of combating the poachers. "Hunters are equipped with advanced industrial tools, such as cyanide, night vision goggles, GPS devices, AK-47s, and even helicopters, while most rangers carry machete and walk barefoot," he complained.
Lack of funds is the common condition in almost every national reserve. Niassa National Reserve, where Darren Porgieter used to work, is co-managed by the Mozambique government and the Wildlife Conservation Society, but the government does not spend a penny on the management. Nowadays, poachers commit crimes as organizations and slaughtering elephants across national borders, which makes combating poaching even harder.
Between 2012 and 2013, Andrea Crosta’s group conducted an 18-month undercover investigation and found evidence that indicates the financial trail between illicit trade in ivory and terrorism groups like Shabab, which claimed to be responsible for the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi. "I have to protect my team, so I can’t reveal too many details," Andrea seems very careful during the interview, "What I can say is, they take orders from Asians and it pays better than any other middleman to corner the market. Shabab pays $300 a month for its fighters with money earned from ivory, and now, it has more followers." Now, the criminal record of ivory trading has added a new item, indirectly supporting terrorism.
According to the Trade Record Analysis of Flora & Fauna in Commerce (TRAFFIC), a daily average of two Chinese people are arrested because of carrying ivory, which indicates how high profit can lead to reckless move. Once the tusks have been hacked from elephants, Chinese are involved. "There are mainly two types of smugglers in China. I call them container- smugglers and souvenir-hunters," said Hongxiang Huang, the founder of ChinaHouse, an organization focusing on Sino-African Relationship. In 2013, Huang went to Mozambique for an undercover investigation, he was amazed at the ivory market in Maputo, "The sellers are particularly happy to see Chinese and they even picked up some Chinese words like ivory and ebony" Huang said. "After several talks with Chinese workers there, I learnt a lot of tips about smuggling ivory." Huang added. "If you bribe the officer at the customs of Mozambique airports for 100 $, they won’t check your luggage."
With the development of the Sino-African relationship, more and more Chinese workers arrive in Africa for construction of infrastructure, and constitute another group of criminals that cannot be underestimated. Compared to Chinese tourists, they have more local contacts and more experiences dealing with African governments and customs boarders - unlike "professional," souvenir-hunters who bring ivory to China piece by piece. In average, they earn less than 1000 $ a month, if they can smuggle even 1 kg of ivory from Africa to China, they can make 3000 $ at one time. High profit combined with low risk makes ivory smuggling a "fair" business.
When it comes to containers, most of the ivory is being smuggled to seaports on the East African coast, notably Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Mombasa (Kenya) and Maputo (Mozambique). More recently significant hauls have been intercepted in Cape Town and Durban (South Africa) and from Togo and Nigeria (West Africa). From seaport in East African coast to Asia, the smugglers change routes to avoid being caught. They ship containers and bury ivories inside piles of logs and ores via multiple transits countries including Vietnam, Malaysia and even Europe to create confusion.
"I’m not scholar or researcher," Darren has his own confusion, "I really don't know how to make the most efficient policy. I only know how to do my job." He kept the tape recorder he found on the scene that day, continuous howling, mixed withintense gunshots, as some hunters like to keep the recording and bring it back to show off with tribes. "I will play it for you when you come to Kenya, no one would buy ivory if they heard the howling before death. No one, I hope."
Jialu Zhang is a Chinese journalist currently based in Amsterdam. You can reach her through LinkedIn.