By Alexandra Wexler
A long-dormant threat to Africa's elephant population is back with a vengeance, thanks to rising demand for ivory from newly affluent Chinese consumers.
Reflecting this demand, ivory prices in China have soared to as high as US$7,000 a kilogram in 2011 from US$157 a kilo in 2008, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nongovernmental organization based in London. Estimates from other researchers and NGOs put ivory prices in China as low as US$300 to US$750 a kilo, which nevertheless reflects at least a 100% increase in price over three years.
Official data on the extent of the ivory trade are difficult to come by, as much of the trade is illegal. From 2009 to June 2011, mainland China and Hong Kong seized more than 6,500 kilograms of illegal ivory in four large shipments, according to a report released by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or Cites.
"China has overtaken Japan as the world's largest consumer market for illegal ivory products," the Cites report said.
Malaysian authorities this month confiscated nearly 700 African elephant tusks destined for China from Tanzania, the third seizure of illegal ivory since July, officials and wildlife activists said, according to the Associated Press. A week earlier, Hong Kong authorities had seized $1.6 million in African ivory from a container that arrived by sea from Malaysia.
In China, sales have been driven by ivory's appeal as a traditional symbol of wealth and status. "Lately, we've had a lot of mainland Chinese customers," said Alice Chan, sales manager at Exquisite Crafts, an antique shop in Hong Kong filled with figurines carved from both elephant and mammoth ivory, including two enormous carved tusks on display in the shop window. "They're rich now."
Mammoth ivory is legal to import and export from Hong Kong, but Ms. Chan says that the Chinese typically want elephant ivory, which is considered of higher quality. Cites says almost all of the current demand for elephant ivory comes from the Chinese market, including Hong Kong and Macau. The Geneva-based Cites is an international agreement among 175 governments, including the U.S. and China, that aims to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants doesn't threaten their survival.
Outlets that legally sell elephant ivory from old stocks in China are supposed to be licensed and monitored by the government, with certificates accompanying all legal ivory. Taking ivory out of China or importing it into most other countries, including the U.S., is illegal. More....