By Brendan Moyle
I visited China for a research project on the ivory trade in January. It took two years of groundwork first. China is not an easy place to get data from - you just can't drop in and start investigating.
And, rather than gathering rumours and stories from the fringes of the legal market, which seems to be the case in many international media reports, my colleague and I got access to other parts of the supply chain. The evidence began pointing away from the legal market as a catalyst for the illegal trade of ivory.
I'm a wildlife economist, but first a conservationist. Like all conservationists, I'm extremely concerned at the rate at which elephants are being poached in Africa, but it concerns me when I see inaccurate stories. You can't fight the black market trade in wildlife unless you understand how it operates - and the legal ivory trade is not the right place to focus conservation efforts.
In a major ivory factory in Beijing, we looked at the workstations. There were 16 in all. In 1990, before the CITES ban on international ivory sales, the factory had 800 staff, but the ban decimated the legal ivory carving industry in China.
China legally purchased 62 tonnes from the existing ivory stockpile in 2008, and by that year there were only eight staff and one master carver left. Staff levels have since expanded to 16. Most were technicians in their third year of training. Depending on their complexity, pieces would take anywhere between two months and two years to complete.
By weight, about 90 per cent of the registered ivory is made into unique pieces with specific photo-IDs. The scope of the problem of resale of small generic pieces is unknown, but the legal trade is simply unable to absorb the tonnes of ivory being smuggled from Africa. The registration system tracks raw ivory through to the final product and cross-checks each stage for weight gains. Factories and shops are inspected regularly and sometimes covertly, several times a year.
Ivory prices depend on many variables, such as size and grade, the quality of the carving and the reputation of the carver. It's impossible to detect claimed dramatic price rises for ivory. Prices are what we describe as very noisy. None of the suppliers we interviewed expect overall prices to rise. Other goods, like jade, are preferred for investment over ivory as they're showing attractive price increases. More....