China is at the centre of concern over a revival of serious demand for ivory, zoologists working to save the African elephant said yesterday.
Rising levels of wealth among the Chinese may enable many millions to buy ivory items, said Esmond Bradley Martin and Daniel Stiles of the conservation charity Save The Elephants. Launching a report on the ivory markets of East Asia, the two men said the same phenomenon had occurred in Japan in the 1970s and 80s -rising income levels enabled millions of Japanese to buy carved ivory items, in particular hanko, or Japanese name seals.
The soaring demand caused by that led directly to a vast slaughter of African elephants by poachers, reducing the population from 1.3 million in 1979 to 625,000 a decade later. But, in 1989, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) banned the ivory trade and demand fell off around the world.
Since then it has remained low and, in Japan, once its centre, ivory-carving seems to be gradually dying out as a craft, according to Dr Bradley Martin, an ivory expert.
While the state-owned ivory carving business of China had gone out of business, small ivory carvers were now flourishing in unlicensed factories and China's rocketing economy was giving people the money to buy their products.
"Private capital has now come into the Chinese ivory trade," said Dr Stiles, who has just returned from a visit to the country. "While the Cites ban initially had a tremendous impact across East Asia, we see signs of the market coming back in China.
"Before the ban, there were about 900 Chinese ivory carvers. After the ban that fell to perhaps 10 or 20 in the whole country. But now the figure is back up to 200."
Such was the demand, he said, that ivory from the tusks of extinct mammoths buried in the permafrost of Siberia was being imported - legally - from Russia. "As the permafrost melts, many mammoths are being exposed with their huge tusks," he said. But mammoth ivory had a smell, was subject to cracking and was stained brown, so large amounts of African elephant ivory were being imported illegally through Chinese ports.
Fifty tons of illegal ivory were seized in China between 1992 and 2002, Dr Stiles said. It represented between 7,000 and 10,000 dead elephants.
Will Travers, chief executive of the animal conservation charity the Born Free Foundation, which co-funded the report, said US Customs estimated seized ivory represented perhaps only 15-20 per cent of illegal ivory traffic, so supplying the Chinese market over that decade might have led to the deaths of anything from 35,000 to 65,000 elephants.
Dr Bradley Martin and Dr Stiles said the mushrooming Chinese economy was going to pose an enormous threat to natural resources and wildlife. "China is sucking in huge amounts of wildlife products," Dr Martin said.
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