Pictured is a photo of an 14-inch long elephant tusk carved into the image of Guanyin, a Buddhist spiritual deity in China associated with mercy and kindness, uploaded by an anonymous seller onto the auctioning site mycollect.net.

The bodhisattva Guanyin is venerated as a symbol for compassion and mercy by Buddhists in East Asia. Translated into English, her name means attentive to the cries of the world. It is all the more tragically ironic then, that her image is a popular subject for ivory artisans in China, often working with illicit materials sourced from the slaughter of African elephants.

African governments -- and international animal-rights organizations -- contend the Chinese luxury consumer's appetite for ivory is driving a new wave of illegal killing of one of their continent's most iconic animals.

Demand is only one side of the equation: Poor oversight and shoddy legal enforcement across countries are other reasons why dealers in fresh ivory are now able to avail themselves of an illicit pathway from Central and West Africa to artisan shops in Southern China -- and ultimately onto mantles and shelves in the homes and offices of China's rising upper class.

The illegal trade in ivory is not only a major issue in conservation but also increasingly a problem of international organized crime and illicit trafficking, an illustration of developing-world resource mismanagement, and an expression of the gaps in transnational security.

U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the illegal ivory trade a multimillion-dollar criminal enterprise at a committee hearing on poaching held May 24. Kerry said the illicit trafficking of ivory is a menace to developing economies and only one facet of a globally interlinked network that includes illegal exploitation of timber and mineral resources.

Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the CEO of the nonprofit organization Save the Elephants and a witness at the same hearing, said, Demand for ivory in China is flourishing as never before, and is driving the illegal killing of elephants, but the consequences of their buying illegal ivory is largely unknown by the Chinese public.


The above elephant tusks were transiting Guangxi Province late last year when confiscated by Chinese authorities. Photo: The Beijing News/Zhao Kang

The Illicit Trade In Ivory

Last year, 5,259 elephant tusks were seized worldwide, representing the deaths of 2,670 elephants. Meanwhile, international authorities reported 13 cases of major ivory seizures in 2011, compared with a total 16 such cases during the previous four years.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare, or IFAW, a private animal charity and educational organization, released a survey on June 2 detailing the intricacies of the world's illegal ivory trade, implicating rising demand from China as the core cause driving a resurgence in the industry.

With China's nouveau riche seeking ways to show off their social status and look for new investment opportunities as the stock and real-estate markets slow down, luxury animal and art products are becoming increasingly attractive to high-end consumers. As an alternative, ivory, like other traditional symbols of wealth in East Asia, has increasingly been sought after in recent years.

IFAW claimed the 2008 legitimate sale to China of 108 metric tons of old ivory from stockpiles in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe -- allowed under the legal authority of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora, or CITES -- created heightened demand for the product, which has been sustained in past years due to rising interest in luxury artisan products.

Paul Todd, an IFAW campaigns manager, said the group's report proves what many of us feared would happen -- the stockpile sales provided easy cover for illegal ivory to enter the markets in China. Todd added that the brief opening in effect signaled to Chinese and other consumers that dealing in ivory was OK again after it had been banned for years.

Todd noted that poaching in Central and West Africa may have a disproportionate impact on elephant populations on the continent, since numbers there are smaller to begin with, and they may in fact represent a uniquely endemic forest-dwelling species.

That has led to fears of conservation experts that after 30 years of regaining population numbers, the African elephant may once again be in peril due to hunting and poaching.

While ivory may originally come from African poachers, militias, and armed gangs, it is individuals from the larger numbers of Chinese and Asian traders in Africa that are arranging for illegal transport out of the continent. Different African nations experience different challenges. In Cameroon, authorities are facing difficulties tracking down groups of poachers entering into the country from neighboring Chad. In Kenya, the wildlife service is concerned with illicit trade occurring at local markets and with incoming Asian tourists unfamiliar with local laws.

IFAW's analysis contended the strengthening yuan in recent years has made it more profitable for Chinese dealers to conduct ivory purchases in U.S. dollars.

Hamilton said: For the first time in the history of continental Africa, large numbers of Chinese are living in Africa collecting ivory and shipping it out. This is an incredibly potent force when coupled with the fact that the Chinese probably have more financing available than almost any other investor in Africa today.

Experts believe China has now surpassed Japan as the world's largest market for illegal ivory -- and that countries in the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia regularly serve as transit points for delivering ivory products into the mainland, sometimes offloading first into Hong Kong.

Indeed, ivory is now becoming the preferred product in China's underground market for wildlife smuggling. The government's arm for upholding the CITES reported that 73 percent of the 933 cases of wildlife smuggling recorded by customs officials in 2010 involved ivory products.


An image of an ivory phone casing, shown on Hebei Television Network in China during a March report on ivory trafficking in China.

Complex Problems

The investigatory survey conducted by IFAW discovered not only an illicit network but also abuses across the legal ivory trade system in China. That indicated a lack of knowledge, or care, about the mechanisms used for conducting the legal trade of ivory.

Ivory from former stockpiles imported into the country must be meticulously labeled and recorded with every transaction. For ivory dealers eager to increase turnover and sales in a surging market, that simply looks like too much red tape.

Although the country has explicit regulations on recording and tagging the transfer of ivory product from seller to buyers, rules are often ignored.

It became clear that illegal ivory, once smuggled to the country, can be laundered freely through the legal market, noted the IFAW report. The organization claimed that of 158 ivory retail centers it visited throughout the country during the past year, 135 were either operating without a license or had a license, but were nevertheless selling suspect ivory product. The entire country only has 172 centers with legal approval to sell ivory, but the actual number of shops and auction houses dealing with objects made entirely or partially with ivory is undoubtedly many times higher.

The wholesale price of ivory tripled in China between 2006 and 2011, with a kilogram of raw ivory on average now costing about 15,000 yuan or almost $2,370.

According to the IFAW, the total number of ivory items auctioned in China doubled between 2010 and 2011. The organization said that information it received from auction houses in China reveal that 11,100 pieces of ivory were auctioned off on the mainland last year, originally worth some $95.4 million. Experts think the actual size of the illicit market is much larger -- and far harder to quantify.

Much of the transfer of ivory products is now occurring online through art-dealing sites, even though China forbids the trade of ivory on the Internet.

But if ivory sellers are using 21st-century methods to market their goods, the root causes of increasing demand in China may be much more ancient, and they will require more complex measures to solve than simply policing the Net.

Poor education on conservation and flimsy legal enforcement are only partial explanations for the prevalance of black-market animal-trade networks in China. Yet, a historical appreciation for sophisticated pieces of art made from animal products like bone, ivory, and horn means that the problem may be much more ingrained, and culturally unique.


Shown is a small ivory stamp from the Qing Dynasty (dated from 17th to the 18th century), auctioned at Christie's in London late last year for £646,000, or almost $1 million. The object was originally valued at only £3,000. Photo: Christie's

And in Africa, the problem has its own entirely different complexities. Poor government capacity to oversee major parklands and limited human resources to patrol and protect endangered animals means that poaching activities are frequently only discovered after the fact. Poachers often cross borders from neighboring countries, and they may be part of criminal or anti-government organizations, meaning the effort to find and bring them to justice must be multinational and well-armed. In addition, a population boom in many parts of the continent is creating new frictions between farmers eager to expand their lands and those interested in preserving regional ecologies.

Many animal-rights activists and conservation experts have contended renewed pressure on the Chinese government is necessary, including the demand for a complete moratorium on the legal trade of elephant tusks. But singling out a single country or government has often proven to be ineffective in past efforts by conservation groups to tackle other issues such as commercial whaling and seal hunting. 

IFAW's Todd said the next step is to improve public education and divert further resources to developing countries from developed ones. Affected governments need to increase legal-enforcement capabilities and public awareness. He said the battle against the illicit ivory trade helps to fight global organized crime and ultimately supports sustainable development throughout the continent, meaning there are benefits involved for everyone interested in Africa's continued economic advancement.