Surrounded by sculptures carved from the white tusks of African elephants -- which are being slaughtered in their tens of thousands -- Beijing saleswoman Chen Yu says the ivory trade is thriving. "Business is good," Chen said, pointing out a 1.2 million yuan ($200,000) ivory statue of Buddhist figure Guanyin, who is associated with compassion. "That's one of our biggest sculptures... it was carved in Beijing," she said.
Surging demand for ivory and rhino horn in Asia is behind an ever-mounting death toll of African elephants and rhinos, conservationists say, as authorities fail to rein in hugely lucrative international smuggling networks.
Policy-makers meet in Bangkok on Monday for the triennial meeting of signatories to the world's most important agreement on wildlife trade, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) last week singled out Thailand, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo for tough sanctions to halt what one spokesman called "a poaching crisis... of the kind that we haven't seen in a long time".
WWF estimates that around 25,000 elephants were hunted for ivory in 2011, and predicts an even higher toll for 2012. There could be as few as 470,000 left, it says.
The situation facing rhinos -- of which only about 25,000 remain in Africa -- is also bleak, with a record 668 killed for their horns in South Africa alone in 2012, up nearly 50 percent from the previous year.
Activists report that hunting gangs in Africa slaughter entire herds of elephants, and dozens of rhinos, to feed smuggling chains which stretch to eager consumers in East Asia, all avoiding intervention by the authorities.
Experts are clear that most illegal ivory is headed to China, with some estimating the country accounts for as much as 70 percent of global demand.
"China is the leading end-use market for ivory in the world today," Tom Milliken from the wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC told AFP. More....