China's ivory trade thriving as market moves online

Carvers work to order at a factory in southern China Credit: ITV News

The ivory trade in China is a burgeoning one. There seems little relent in demand yet little understanding that precious mammals die in the production of so-deemed ‘precious’ ornaments.

ITV News secretly filmed at a legitimate factory in Guangzhou, southern China, where expert carvers work to order.

The company's practices do fall within government regulations yet the organisation still wouldn’t allow us to film openly inside. They know that within the trade there are ‘grey’ areas and that their craft inevitably feeds an insatiable appetite for the product which spurs on the slaughter.

A sales assistant at their shop told us that the price of ivory has doubled in the last five years, but determining what is legal and illegal is difficult, so as a result sensitivity surrounds the whole issue.

China allows the sale of ivory as long as businesses conform to rules:

  • Any company carving or dealing in ivory in the country has to have a licence.

  • Imports of ivory and its products must be permitted by the State Forestry Administration.

  • Raw elephant ivory and its products should also be processed at designated places, sold at fixed shops and tracked on an individual item basis.

  • Each legal ivory product can be tracked through a unique photo ID and is recorded in a database.

Last week, China also introduced a one-year ban on African ivory imports to see how it will affect the trade over the next 12 months.

But Zhou Fei, from the wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC, told me it won't have much effect.

Zhou Fei Credit: ITV News

He said: "The ban will only be on legal imports which isn’t the difficulty we’re facing. The unlawful trade is the real problem.

"The ban therefore won’t have much of an effect on the illegal trade, but the message it sends out is a good one. It shows that the Chinese government is determined to do something to protect African elephants."

His organisation shares intelligence with police, and says the illegal marketplace is changing.

“It’s moving very fast from physical shops, to online, to social media now,” he said.

Ivory products are being sold online Credit: ITV News

At its peak in March 2012, more than 4,000 new advertisements a month for illegal wildlife products were appearing on Chinese online shopping websites. More than half of those were for ivory.

Since then TRAFFIC has worked with internet institutions like Alibaba, Taobao and Tencent to get them to remove advertisements and block "code words" used to describe illegal wildlife products.

Sixty-four "code words" have been identified by TRAFFIC that describe products like rhino horn, tiger bone and ivory including “white plastic", "African materials" and "jelly.”

After July 2012, sales fell to 1,500 and have remained at that level since but the sellers have grown wise to the monitoring and the trade has shifted again.

They’re now choosing to put their products on social networking sites where they can control exactly who is in their network and who is a regular and bonafide buyer.

The anonymity of these sites is allowing the illicit economy to thrive and it keeps evolving because while ivory has appeal, the population of the world’s most prized mammals will be undermined.

Watch ITV News' China Correspondent Lucy Watson's full report: