Vanity Fair On China And The Ivory Trade

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Alex Shoumatoff as written and important but depressing piece about Chinese demand for ivory and the slaughter of elephants in Africa. It is in the latest issue of Vanity Fair and is available free online–Agony and Ivory. The story is about the relentless assault on Africa’s elephants, but on a broader level it provides a unique window into China’s push into Africa.

Some choice excerpts:

There are brokers just across the Tanzania border who are paying cash—around $20 a pound—for raw ivory and selling it to the Chinese. Or perhaps there is a series of transactions, a series of middlemen, but ultimately what is not being picked up by the Kenya Wildlife Service’s sniffing dogs at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, in Nairobi, is making its way by all kinds of circuitous routes to China, where raw ivory is now fetching $700 or more a pound. Ninety percent of the passengers who are being arrested for possession of ivory at Jomo Kenyatta are Chinese nationals, and half the poaching in Kenya is happening within 20 miles of one of the five massive Chinese road-building projects in various stages of completion.

There had been almost no poaching around Amboseli for 30 years before a Chinese company got the contract to build a 70-mile-long highway just above the park. Since the road crews arrived, in 2009, four of Amboseli’s magnificent big-tusked bulls have been killed, and the latest word is that the poachers are now going after the matriarchs—a social and genetic disaster, because elephants live in matriarchies, and removing the best breeders of both sexes from the gene pool could funnel the Amboseli population into what is known as an “extinction vortex.”

China accounts for the bulk of the demand, but other countries are buying poached ivory as well:

This April was the cruelest month in the current wave of killing. Then, in the first week of May alone, a ton of ivory was confiscated in Kenya, more than 1,300 pounds in Vietnam—from Tanzania—and a Chinese man was arrested at Entebbe airport in Uganda with 34 pieces of ivory. To top it off, a South Korean diplomat was caught trying to bring 16 tusks into Seoul. The carnage is escalating.

During the great elephanticide of the 1970s and 1980s, Africa’s elephant population was cut from an estimated 1.3 million to some 600,000, and Kenya’s elephant population went from 120,000 to 15,000. (It is now about twice that.) At the height of the slaughter, it is believed, 70,000 elephants a year were being killed continent-wide. The death toll may be half that now, but there are only half as many elephants left.

The previous slaughter was driven by Japan’s economic boom. This new crisis is driven by China’s nouveaux riches, or bao fa hu (the “suddenly wealthy”), who are as numerous as the entire population of Japan. The main consumers are middle-aged men who have just made it into the middle class and are eager to flaunt their ability to make expensive discretionary purchases. Beautiful ivory carvings are traditional symbols of wealth and status…

In the case of the Kuku Ranch carcass, we know where the tusks are from. The question is, where did they go? The poachers probably walked them over the border into Tanzania and sold them to a broker in one of the four towns where ivory is known to be bought and sold. From there—after changing hands a few times—it is likely they were hidden in one of the charcoal lorries that go back and forth between Kenya and Tanzania and re-entered Kenya. From there, they could have made their way to Nairobi or Mombasa. Once ivory gets to Nairobi and is ready to be shipped, the Chinese involvement becomes traceable. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers and other temporary laborers are employed on road, logging, mining, and oil-drilling crews in all of the elephants’ range states. Some manage to make it home with a few pounds of ivory hidden in their suitcases, thus doubling their meager earnings, or they are recruited as carriers for higher-ups. But they are not the real problem. The real problem is the managers, who have the resources to directly commission some local to kill an elephant and bring them the tusks, and diplomats, whose bags are not checked, and the Chinese businessmen, who are taking over the economy of Africa.

In the last decade the number of Chinese residents in Africa has grown from 70,000 to more than a million. China’s trade on the continent—$114 billion last year—is expected to keep increasing by over 40 percent a year. According to Traffic, a nonprofit wildlife-trade-monitoring network, each day, somewhere in the world, an average of two Chinese nationals are arrested with ivory…

Once a shipment leaves Africa, it never goes directly to the final destination. The routes are constantly changing. It’s a shell game, as Wasser says. But eventually most of the ivory arrives, by land, sea, air, or a combination thereof, in Guangzhou, formerly Canton, China’s main ivory-carving-and-trading center, just up the coast from Hong Kong. All roads lead to Guangzhou. There are around 100 master carvers in this humming city of eight million. Most of them are working in illegal factories. But there are also legal, state-owned factories, which get their ivory from the one-off sales of old stock that CITES allowed South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe to have in 2008. These sales supplied 100 tons of ivory to the Chinese and Japanese markets. The argument for allowing them to happen was that China and Japan would be happy with so much ivory, and the poaching would be reduced, but they have had the opposite effect: the poaching has been showing a steady rise, and a lot of illegal ivory is being passed off as old stock.

There are some brave Chinese activists who are trying to halt the trade and educate Chinese consumers. In Guangzhou Shoumatoff

rendezvous with “Crystal,” an undercover investigator for IFAW. Crystal is Chinese, in her 30s, and tiny, half my size, and she is absolutely passionate about elephants, even though she has never met one in the flesh.

“Elephants are a global priority,” she tells me. “Tigers are an Asian priority, and we are trying to do something for the stray cats. China has no animal-welfare laws.” Although the killing of a panda or an elephant was a capital offense until last year. There are only a few hundred wild elephants in China, all of them in the extreme south of Yunnan Province, near the Laos and Burma borders. They are the Asian species, Elephas maximus, of which there are around 50,000 left—about one-tenth of the African population. Most of them are in India, and their annual mortality from poaching comes to only 300 or 400…

There’s a saying that the southern Chinese will eat anything with legs except a table, and anything with wings except a plane. I’ve been hearing that this is also now a problem with the Chinese in Africa—and not only those from the South—who are eating domestic dogs and cats, baboons, painted dogs, and leopard tortoises and making soup from the marrow of lower leg bones of giraffes and from lion bones. Grace Ge Gabriel, Crystal’s boss in Beijing, laments, “Chinese society today is ruled by one principle only: Make Money for Me. On the way to make riches for oneself, there is no concern for anything, including other people and the environment, let alone animals. Unfortunately, the south-Chinese practice of ‘eating everything in sight’ is adopted by a lot more people now. And the Chinese have the ability to travel all over the world now. Especially in countries where law and order are not well established, these Chinese feel that they can get away with eating anything and everything.”

“Another problem,” Crystal explains, “is that the Chinese word for ivory is elephant’s teeth—xiang ya. We did a survey. Seventy percent thought tusks can fall out and be collected by traders and grow back, that getting ivory did not mean the elephant is killed, and more than 80 percent would reject ivory products and not buy any more if they knew elephants were being killed, so it’s ignorance.

But the same survey found reluctance to comply with the ivory-control system and a desire for “affordable” ivory. Fourteen and a half percent of those polled were already ivory consumers, and 76 percent were willing to break the law to buy ivory at a cheaper price.

I wonder if the increasing consumption of bush meat in Africa means that returning Chinese might bring some strange epidemic back to China, with disastrous consequences?

WildAid is trying to address the issue through

Chinese celebrities, like N.B.A. star Yao Ming and Jackie Chan, to get out the message. I call Peter Knights, the outfit’s director, in San Francisco. “It’s a combination of new money and old ideas,” he tells me, “a huge bubble we’re trying to burst.” Funding conservation at the consumer end is not as easy as it is for fieldwork with the animals, but the Chinese government has been very supportive. CCTV, the state-owned television station, and a whole range of other outlets have donated media time and aired everything from 15- to 30-second public-service announcements to five-minute shorts to half-hour documentaries.

“The younger generation gets it,” Knights continues. “It’s the aging new wealthy, who have tremendous purchasing power and see acquiring ivory as part of holding on to their historic Chinese-ness, who have to be reached—before there’s no more ivory left to buy.”

China of course is not solely to blame for the killings of elephants. Poor, corrupt African nations are either complicit or lack to resources to stop the ivory trade. But unless the seemingly bottomless Chinese demand can be stemmed, it is hard to be optimistic about the future of Africa’s elephants.

You can read the whole article here.

Thanks for reading. The best way to see this daily post is to subscribe by email, especially if you are in China, as Sinocism is still blocked here. You can also follow me on Twitter @niubi or Sina Weibo @billbishop. Feel free to donate through the button on the top right, and if there is a story you think I should include please send it to me. 

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