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February 17, 2012

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Illegal ivory trade flourishes once again

ON a pillar in the Beijing Chengtian Antique City, a conspicuous warning is posted: Dealing in ivory and rhino horn products is strictly forbidden.

But under secret counters in this market and in the hideaways of contraband sellers, the illegal trade of ivory is flourishing amid rising demand.

According to a report commissioned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), China has surpassed Japan to become the world's largest consumer market for ivory products. The conclusion of the international body created to prevent exploitation of wildlife is not a superlative to be proud of.

In cities like Guangzhou and Fuzhou, ivory smuggling is rampant, with illegal raw materials channeled in from Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Some of the smuggled ivory comes directly from Africa.

China is a particular target for ivory sellers, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. In September and October last year, the International Fund for Animal Welfare conducted investigations in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Fuzhou, hoping to gauge the status of the ivory trade and compare its activity with data taken during similar probes undertaken since 2005.

The results were startling.

Of the 158 ivory factories and shops visited last year, only 57 were approved by the State Forestry Administration and the Ministry of Commerce. In other words, only one-third of the sites were legal.

Worse, even some companies licensed to do ivory trading were found to be selling contraband ivory products, the survey said. In fact, illegal deals outpaced legal ones six to one.

Ivory trade history

Ivory carving was part of China's culture long before anyone worried about the fate of the animals that produced it.

Even today, elephant ivory is prized here despite campaigns around the world to blackball a commodity that comes from the killing of endangered mammals. Some countries have banned ivory trading outright. China has been more equivocal in its response.In 1989, the CITES prohibited the global sales of ivory products by putting African elephants on its Appendix I, where items are strictly prohibited. The trade ban was in response to two-decades of rampant poaching to supply the ivory trade, which more than halved the population of elephants on the African continent.

But in 1997, a crack appeared in the hard line. CITES Parties at its conference that year approved proposals to down-list elephant populations in certain southern African countries to allow the so-called "one-off sales of ivory." In 1999, Japan purchased 54.6 tons of ivory from that sale, which came from Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

In 2007, CITES approved yet another stockpile sale and allowed China to join Japan to become a trading partner. At an auction in the subsequent year, a total of 102 tons of ivory from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana were purchased by China and Japan.

The sales came at the request of African countries that claimed they needed money to fund their animal-protection activities. At the same time, Asian countries - Japan and China in particular - said they lacked raw ivory to sustain their ancient arts of tusk carving.

To meet CITES requirement which enabled China to become a trading partner to participate in the 2008 sale, China enacted a new ivory registration system in 2005, where only operations that receive government licenses can engage in legal ivory trade. The system also requires that every piece of ivory sold need to have accompanying proper documentation or identity card.

The loosening of CITES regulations, originally aimed at improving the protection of wild animals, rescuing a dying art and fulfilling demand for ivory products in Asia, had more downside effects than intended.

It reignited the whole illegal ivory business and resulted in two species of elephants - Asian and African - being put on extinction alert by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Smuggling and illegal sales

As individual wealth in China increases, the nouveau riche have been in hot pursuit of ivory chopsticks, bangles, engravings and other products to parade their wealth and standing.

According to the China National Arts & Crafts (Group) Co, China's biggest trader of legal ivory products, a pair of genuine ivory chopsticks priced at 10 yuan (US$1.60) in the 1960s now sells for at least 2,000 yuan.

Last year, it cost 15,000 yuan to buy a miniature dragon boat carved of ivory. Today it sells for 40,000 yuan.

The most recent IFAW survey said robust demand for such products had been bolstering the price of raw ivory, which has risen 50 percent in the last year to 15,000 yuan a kilogram. That's a stark contrast to the 2008 auction price of US$157 a kilogram, or 989 yuan in current exchange rates.

The 62 tons of ivory bought by China in 2008 hardly makes a dent in surging demand. That has led to smuggling as the major channel for bringing in new supplies of the raw material.

Grace Ge, Asia regional director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, told Shanghai Daily the legal market in China has provided ample loopholes for smuggled ivory to be whitewashed.

Between April and September last year, 4,759 pieces of ivory tusk were confiscated around the world. That equates to the death of more than 2,000 elephants. China, the group said, was a major destination for the contraband.

Of the 62 tons bought by China at the CITES auction, only 17.5 tons has actually been sold on so far for processing. The rest remains in the warehouses of the China National Arts & Crafts.

The company had planned to sell on 27 tons in the first phase, but sales fell short of that goal.

"We sell at a price more than that of smuggled ivory," an official of the company was quoted by South Weekend as saying.

General Administration of Customs data show that each year in the past decade, the agency dealt with close to 1,000 cases of ivory smuggling. Much more slips through and is secretly fed to factories and shops engaged in illegal trading.

The State Forestry Administration in 2004 certified nine factories and 31 retailers for ivory business, but strangely enough, there are 36 certified factories and 137 certified retailers operating today.

It is estimated that 100 kilograms of raw ivory will last a master carver only two years.

The Chinese government insists it has not been turning a blind eye to the smuggling and illegal sales, as some media have alleged. In fact, its campaign to crack down on illegal trading has been high visible but woefully ineffective.

Ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, China's National Tourism Administration, the China CITES Management Authority and an organization in South Africa produced 100,000 leaflets reminding Chinese travelers to the games not to buy or bring back endangered wildlife products.

Chinese authorities have also sponsored seminars to emphasize the importance of controlling the ivory trade and have posted warnings about it in the visa offices of Chinese embassies in Africa and in the African embassies in China.

Customs officials say they have strengthened supervision at ports. In 2010, customs seized ivory from citizens returning to China on more than 700 occasions. But such efforts fall far short of the goal.

Ivory trade regulations are fraught with loopholes at every stage, from purchasing to processing to retailing.

In theory, each ivory product should carry one piece of certification. But some sellers in China tell buyers that they can't provide any documentation, and that doesn't deter purchases.

The State Forestry Administration and the Administration of Industry and Commerce, two major government authorities in charge of regulating and enforcing ivory trading, were reported to be short of staff.

"Illegal sales are very secret, and perpetrators are sometimes notified in advance when unannounced inspections will be held," South Weekend reported, citing an unidentified source.

"Also, liaison among various government departments is not tight enough," the source went on to say. "The Administration of Industry and Commerce does not have the power to confiscate illegal products.

When it alerts officials of the State Forestry Administration, who do have that power, the trail of unlicensed sales sometimes disappears or is whitewashed."

"The one bright spot in this hopeless situation is the policy of banning all ivory trade online enacted by major e-commerce marketplaces in China, such as," the IFAW's Ge credited the joint efforts by the government agencies, the internet industry and the civil society for reducing illegal ivory trade on the web.

"A crystal clear policy that ivory trade is not tolerated helps remove confusion in the minds of consumers and makes enforcement easier. The root of the problem in China is the existence of a legal market, which provides cover for illegal trade."

The fund's recent survey report seems to bear that out, considering the rampant smuggling and illegal sales, the report concluded.

Ge said she thinks the only way to control the situation is to ban all ivory trading in China.

Others take an even harsher stance, saying that the only way to save the elephants is to destroy all the ivory on the market.


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