In early October, Hong Kong customs agents seized 189 elephant tusks worth about $1.5 million. The shipment, from Cote d’Ivoire and destined for China, weighed nearly 1700 pounds. It was the third interception in Hong Kong of illegal African ivory and other goods since July, the first being worth $2.2 million and the second $5.3 million. The first came from Togo and the second, which also included rhinoceros horn and leopard skins, from Nigeria.
An estimated 70 percent of global demand for ivory and rhino horn stems from China, the remainder from Thailand and Vietnam. Ivory and rhino horn are valued for ceremonial, religious, and cultural purposes. Most of the elephant tusks are turned into jewelry, curios, and religious artifacts. Rhino horn is often ground up and the powder used medicinally, especially nowadays in the mistaken belief that it “cures” cancer and is an aphrodisiac.
Nearly all of the lucrative trade in elephant and rhinoceros tusks and horns is illegal, and the result of poaching by Africans, many of whom are employed by Chinese entrepreneurs living throughout mainland Africa. Wildlife trafficking syndicates consistently sell poached ivory and rhino horn at Chinese markets in most of the major cities of southern Afric particularly in Johannesburg and Maputo. An undercover sting earlier this month in one market found abundant quantities of ivory and rhino horn being sold by Africans to Chinese middlemen.
Chinese demand clearly drives the trade. A pound of ivory often fetches $1000 on the streets of Beijing. Rhino horn is more valuable, costing about $30,000 a pound in Beijing or Hanoi. The United Nations Environment Program says that since the largest ivory market in the world is in China, “Nowhere is the need for demand reduction more critical.” China is the epicenter of demand,” said a senior State Department official. “Without the demand from China, this would all but dry up.” There is no African market for ivory or horn that is not driven by external demand.
High-ranking officers in the People’s Liberation Army have a fondness for ivory trinkets as gifts. Chinese online forums offer a thriving, and essentially unregulated, market for ivory chopsticks, bookmarks, rings, cups and combs.
This demand, fueled in part by rapidly rising incomes in Asia, has led in this decade to the unprecedented decimation of elephants and rhinoceroses throughout the continent, but particularly in southern and eastern Africa where both mammals are more abundant and where there have been (until now) improvements in the numbers of both species in such countries as Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. But tens of thousands of elephants are today being slaughtered annually. The Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, and the Sudan have been the locales of equally pernicious attacks on what were once large herds of elephants. More....