In simple terms, it is a case of supply and demand. In China there’s a demand for ivory, there’s profit to be made, and criminal gangs will therefore do what it takes to provide a supply. In recent years the Chinese Government has taken greater steps to prevent the sale of illegal ivory but it hasn’t stopped the demand.
According to traditional customs ivory brings good luck and wearing it can have a calming effect, Chinese people believe having an ivory carving in their house can also ward off evil, that’s why carvings like a money god or Buddha are popular. The most prized ivory is African ivory which is called ‘White Gold’ and rich Chinese will often collect tusks to display in their house. An exquisitely carved elephant tusk is still regarded as a prized possession.
My first assignment reporting on China’s desire for ivory took me to the unlikely location of Laos. It was there in a corner of the capital Vientiane that we filmed in a market selling illegal wildlife products specifically targeted at Chinese tourists. The signs were in Chinese, most of the shop sellers were Chinese and it was into China that most of the ivory goods would end up.
Since we made that trip in March last year one of the sellers has maintained contact with us, sending pictures of her latest stock. She has shown us full tusks for sale and ornately carved ivory ornaments, both of which she said could be easily sent to us in Beijing.
It’s clear that despite the Government's increased efforts to halt the trade, there are still several gangs in China and it’s neighbouring countries who are continuing to trade. Complicit in this are believed to be customs officials and border guards who are prepared, for a fee, to turn a blind eye to the import and sale of ivory.
In Beijing sellers in markets like Panjiayuuan, are required to have a certificate for the ivory they sell, guaranteeing that it is ancient ivory. That is ivory from stockpiles accumulated before an international ban was introduced. But it’s common knowledge that the certificates are often re-used or indeed faked to cover up the sale of highly sought-after fresh ivory.
A majority of the ivory in China will either have transited or been bought in Hong Kong. It is one of the world’s busiest ports and is well placed to receive and forward shipments of raw ivory from Africa.
To the west of Hong Kong is Shuidong where the Environmental Investigation Agency has exposed what’s believed to be the worlds’ biggest ivory smuggling hub and to the east lies Fujian province, home to China’s ivory carving workshops.
Just this past weekend we were able to enter into shops in Hong Kong and film ivory for sale. It is sold openly in shops in the central and Kowloon districts. Again, sellers get away with their trade by claiming it is old ivory or from mammoth tusks. However, there is evidence of traders in Hong Kong still offering a buy-to-order service. To trusted clients they can arrange to have a fresh tusk sent from Africa. An elephant will be shot to satisfy the behest of a Chinese buyer.
One of the most recent ivory busts happened in Nairobi and those carrying the consignment confessed to customs offers that the cache was heading for Hong Kong.
The Chinese Government last month began to follow through on it’s pledge to shut down the markets and carving factories by the end of 2017.
However, the exposure of the Shuidong syndicate indicates there is still a thriving industry that is not being tackled. There is still a market for ivory and as long as there is a market there will be those willing to enter the high risk high reward business to satisfy it.