Sunday, March 3, 2013

From Elephants’ Mouths, an Illicit Trail to China

March 1, 2013

From Elephants’ Mouths, an Illicit Trail to China


PUZHAI, China — Chinese investors have anointed it “white gold.” Carvers and collectors prefer the term “organic gemstone.” Smugglers, however, use a gruesomely straightforward name for the recently harvested African elephant tusks that find their way to this remote trading outpost on the Vietnamese border.

“We call them bloody teeth,” said Xing, a furniture maker and ivory trafficker who is part of a shadowy trade that has revived calls for a total international ban on ivory sales.

To the outrage of conservation groups trying to stop the slaughter of African elephants and the embarrassment of Chinese law enforcement agencies, Xing’s thriving ivory business is just one drop in a trail of blood that stretches from Africa, by air, sea and highway, to Chinese showrooms and private collections.

“The Chinese hold the key to the elephants’ future,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants. “If things continue the way they are, many countries could lose their elephants altogether.”

Critics say the Chinese government is not doing enough to stem the illicit ivory trade, which has exploded in the five years since conservationists and governments agreed to a program of limited ivory sales intended to stifle poaching and revive a centuries-old handicraft. Since the beginning of 2012, more than 32,000 elephants have been illegally killed, according to the Born Free Foundation, a wildlife organization, and conservationists say the majority of ivory sold in China, which sells for more than $1,300 a pound on the black market, is of questionable origin.

Legalized ivory sales have been a boon to carvers and brokers, who have helped fuel the demand for ever greater supplies. But those who investigate the trade in China say the skyrocketing sales — and the incentive for poaching — can be tied to a combination of incompetence by law enforcement and official corruption, especially by the military.

The only way to save the African elephant, conservationists say, is to outlaw the sale of ivory entirely.

Though the clandestine nature of ivory smuggling makes it difficult to fully map out, experts say Africa’s elephants are being slaughtered at the highest rate in two decades, largely to satisfy soaring demand among China’s growing middle class. “China is clearly driving the illegal ivory trade more than any other nation on earth,” said Tom Milliken, an elephant expert with the wildlife trade-monitoring network Traffic.

Things were meant to turn out differently. In 1989, the United Nations-backed Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or Cites, banned the sale of ivory in an effort to stop what conservationists say was an elephant “holocaust.”

But as herds recovered, Cites officials in 2008 agreed to a contentious one-time auction of stockpiled African ivory to Japan and China, with the money going toward wildlife conservation. As part of the arrangement, the Chinese government introduced a complex documentation system to track every trinket and carving produced from the 68 tons of auctioned ivory it won. Supporters hoped a flood of cheap, regulated ivory would undercut the illegal trade, saving more elephants.

The sale, however, has proved to be a colossal failure. Like the forest canopy that protects poachers from detection, the regulated ivory trade has provided unscrupulous Chinese carvers and collectors with the ideal legal camouflage to buy and sell contraband tusks.

Things went wrong from the start, and wildlife groups say the Chinese government is partly responsible.

After obtaining the auctioned ivory at artificially low prices, state enterprises in China began selling limited amounts to carving factories for up to eight times the winning bid. Instead of smothering the sale of illicit ivory, the spike in prices made poaching even more attractive.

In 2011, for example, auctioned ivory fetched about $94 million, double the previous year’s total, according to the China Association of Auctioneers. “Buyers wouldn’t even take home the carvings they bought before putting them up for bid again,” said an employee with a major Beijing auction house who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivities involved.

Even though the Chinese government in 2011 barred auction houses from selling ivory, sales continue — as does the bloodshed.

The Chinese Market

First opened in 1898, the Old Phoenix Auspicious Jade and Ivory Carving Company in Shanghai is a tradition-bound shrine to China’s newfound prosperity. Its shelves bulge with cabbage-shaped jade carvings and coral broaches, though customers mostly come for the blindingly white array of ivory bookmarks, chopsticks and idols. In one corner, spotlights illuminate a large tusk carved into a 360-degree-panorama of pagodas, palm trees and robed scholars. The price: about $205,000.

Upstairs, more than a dozen carvers in blue uniforms hunch silently over desks as they whittle away at pieces of polished tusk. Most were hired fresh out of art school after the stockpile sale in 2008. The scene deeply satisfies Zhou Bai, 58, a master carver who first learned to carve ivory at 17.

“When the ban was passed in ’89, I was sad this art would die with me,” said Mr. Zhou, who was busy turning a three-foot-long tusk into a fanciful temple surrounded by clouds. “But now we have the opportunity to keep it alive.”

Each carving comes with a government issued-certificate that includes a serial number; items over 50 grams must have a photo ID. But conservationists say the system has been widely corrupted.

Take, for example, the white ivory shavings that piled up below Mr. Zhou’s carved tusk. Asked about what became of the highly prized powder, Mr. Zhou said it was regularly collected by local forestry department employees, who sell it for use as a traditional Chinese elixir believed to fight cancer. The State Forestry Administration, however, denied that its employees have anything to do with the powder.

Yan Zhong, the company’s general manager, pointed to a gold plaque on the wall as proof that all his ivory comes from the state. The license, he said, also gives his customers peace of mind. “All our ivory fell off elephants after they died, so it’s ethical,” he said. “If the tusks were just left to rot, it would be such a waste.”

Yet registration certificates have themselves become valuable commodities in the ivory-laundering business, according to a 2011 investigation by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Vendors have been found reusing identification certificates or selling them to unlicensed dealers. The owner of one formerly illegal carving factory told investigators he paid about $321,000 for a license, which is officially free of charge.

The State Forestry Administration, which oversees the legal ivory trade, says it expels about three vendors each year for breaking the rules. Since the ivory ban was rescinded, the number of licensed businesses has risen to 37 carving factories and 145 shops.

So, too, have prices. At the auction in 2008, the state-owned enterprises paid $71 a pound, then immediately flipped their first quota from their ivory purchases to factories for up to $530 a pound. Today, raw ivory costs more than $1,300 a pound. Just how much illegal ivory has crept into the country is a matter of dispute, but wildlife organizations say there is not nearly enough legal supply to match the amount officially sold across China. “If you look at the volume on the market, it’s nonsense,” said Mary Rice, executive director of the independent Environmental Investigation Agency, which estimates that up to 90 percent of the ivory in China is illegal.

Conservation group investigators say licensed factories often supplement official purchases with smuggled ivory, sometimes by adding illegal pieces to legitimate carvings. One factory owner privately acknowledged that the 330 pounds of legal ivory he acquires annually lasts just one month. The rest, he said, is bought on the black market.

To conservationists, the open sale of contraband ivory is just as vexing. At the Chengtian antiques market in Beijing, eight stalls sold unregistered ivory carvings. Fingering a cream-colored Buddha pendant he was selling for about $800, the vendor explained how to hide it from the authorities. “Just wear it around your neck,” he said. “No need for a certificate.”

When asked if they were afraid of being arrested, the vendors confided that, much like sellers of pirated DVDs and books, they receive ample warning before the rare police crackdown. “As long as we dare to sell, it’s safe for you to buy,” one woman said.

A Cultural Tradition

Ivory is etched deeply into the Chinese identity. Popular lore tells of emperors who believed ivory chopsticks would change color upon contact with poisoned food. In Chinese medicine, ivory powder is said to purge toxins from the body and give a luminous complexion. As part of its public relations effort to legitimize the trade, the government in 2006 added ivory carving to its official Intangible Cultural Heritage register, along with traditional opera, kung fu and acupuncture.

“Love for ivory is in our blood,” said Wu Shaohua, president of the Shanghai Collectors Association. In a society where Rolexes and Louis Vuitton bags are sometimes bought by the dozen, many Chinese believe that giving a trinket carved from elephant tusk confers the highest honor. “It says this relationship is as precious as ivory,” he said.

Mr. Wu said he thinks the prestige and artistry of ivory may outweigh, for enthusiasts, any potential concerns over its provenance.

International conservation groups and the Chinese government have tried to raise awareness. In Africa, home to at least a million Chinese nationals, Chinese embassies send text messages warning against buying ivory, according to a government report. In Beijing and other cities, public service campaigns, including one that features the basketball star Yao Ming, link poaching to smuggled ivory. The Chinese news media frequently reports the arrests of Chinese smugglers.

But the government’s anti-ivory message is muddled. In 2011, Beijing began allowing Chinese travelers from Zimbabwe to carry up to 22 pounds of carved ivory products as “souvenirs” in their luggage, a policy that confuses potential collectors, say conservation groups.

Then there is the emphasis on ivory carving as a hallowed tradition. A Chinese television documentary about the Beijing Ivory Carving Factory’s efforts to revive the ancient craft never broached the subject of poaching or explained that “elephant teeth,” as ivory is called in Mandarin, do not just fall out.

One shopper, a government worker who had seen the documentary, seemed unconcerned with the fate of Africa’s herds as she browsed the Beijing Ivory Carving Factory showroom in January. “As long as the quality of the ivory is good, who cares what happened to the elephant,” she said.

The Chinese government says it is doing all it can to stop ivory smuggling. Officials say that about 900 seizures are made annually within China, some 90 percent of them involving Chinese travelers concealing ivory in their suitcases.

Some cannot resist turning their hobby into income. In 2012, a woman was given an eight-year prison sentence for selling 19 pounds of ivory online. Government officials said 32 smugglers have been given life sentences.

Legal vs. Illegal

But critics say the government’s efforts have largely failed to tackle the syndicates responsible for moving vast quantities of smuggled ivory into China. After the authorities began targeting shipments from certain African countries, the smuggling rings started sending the ivory through intermediate ports so that it appears to come from elsewhere. Officials say they are able to check less than 1 percent of containers arriving on Chinese shores each year.

When they do find a big haul, it is big news. In January, customs officials in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, confiscated nearly 3,000 pounds of ivory, worth $1.4 million, hidden under rocks in a shipping container that came from Kenya through Malaysia — their third large ivory seizure in three months.

In 2010, the authorities in Macau found 2,200 pounds of ivory, including some six-and-a-half-foot tusks, floating in nylon sacks along the shoreline near a golf course.

Here in Puzhai, residents still talk about the raid of April 2011, when a routine inspection yielded one of China’s largest seizures ever: 707 tusks, 32 ivory bracelets and a rhino horn, all hidden inside boxes in the back of a truck.

To conservationists, such huge confiscations are proof that the legal ivory experiment is a failure. “Seizures are not an indication of success,” said Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Xing, the trafficker, sees the confiscations as the result of poor planning.

“Never use your own car,” he said, as his workers blithely posed for photographs with two enormous tusks he had just pulled from a cabinet. Xing confided that he often pays people to carry tusks over the lush mountains that span the notoriously porous Vietnamese border. When that fails, his connections with border guards on the night shift prove indispensable.

Once the tusks cross into China, Xing uses what he calls his “special channel”: vehicles belonging to the People’s Liberation Army, a tactic that ensures no one comes nosing around. A conspirator in Shanghai who operates a factory takes care of the carving. Shipping for a pair of tusks, he said, costs about $800, and takes just five days to reach Beijing.

Chinese officials deny that corruption plays any role in the illegal ivory trade. Rather, they say, their country’s huge size and enormous population make it impossible to wipe out the trafficking. “There are always fish that slip through the net,” said Meng Xianlin, executive director general of China’s endangered species trade authority.

The Chinese government has not responded well to criticism. At a Cites meeting two years ago, China forced all nongovernmental organizations to leave the room when word spread that two groups were planning to issue reports highlighting Beijing’s failings.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman said last month that Chinese law enforcement had “effectively curbed” ivory smuggling.

On Sunday, the Cites delegations will gather in Bangkok for what is set to be a particularly contentious conference. While both China and Thailand are to be named as the biggest illegal ivory markets, only Thailand, which has no legal ivory trade system in place, is under pressure to crack down on ivory sales.

In fact, the Chinese government is lobbying to ease restrictions on ivory trade. Despite the continuing decimation of the African elephant, Mr. Meng, the wildlife trade official, has insisted that herds could endure a robust international ivory trade. He wrote last year to the Cites Secretariat, saying that China should be allowed to buy confiscated tusks from poached elephants in addition to those legally obtained. Asian demand, he wrote, required about 220 tons of raw ivory — equaling the lives of roughly 20,000 elephants — every year.

Shi Da and Mia Li contributed research.

© 2012 The New York Times Company

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