By Jason Straziuso, Michael Casey, William Foreman
Carefully, the Chinese ivory dealer pulled out an elephant tusk cloaked in bubble wrap and hidden in a bag of flour. Its price: $17,000.
"Do you have any idea how many years I could get locked away in prison for having this?" said the dealer, a short man in his 40s, who gave his name as Chen.
A surge in demand for ivory in Asia is fuelling an illicit trade in elephant tusks, especially from Africa. Over the past eight years, the price of ivory has gone up from about $100 per kilogram ($100 per 2.2 pounds) to $1,800, creating a lucrative black market.
Experts warn that if the trade is not stopped, elephant populations could dramatically plummet. The elephants could be nearly extinct by 2020, some activists say. Sierra Leone lost its last elephants in December, and Senegal has fewer than 10 left.
"If we don't get the illegal trade under control soon, elephants could be wiped out over much of Africa, making recovery next to impossible," said Samuel K. Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. "The impact that loss of this keystone species would have on African ecosystems is difficult to even imagine."
Wasser estimated that the illegal trade is about 100 times the legal trade, with a value of $264 million over the past decade.
Demand for ivory runs strong in the Chinese city of Putian, which sits directly across from Taiwan, its outskirts crowded with factories owned by Taiwanese businessmen. These businessmen have a reputation for collecting ivory, a sure way to seal a deal with an important client.
Chen buys his ivory from middlemen. He said he doesn't know its source. More....