Chinese demand for ivory threatens African elephants

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The Independent Online

Burgeoning demand for luxury goods from China's emerging middle class is helping to revive the banned ivory trade in Africa, putting elephants back in poachers' sights, conservationists have warned.

Across China, shops are offeringconsumers items that only a generation ago were beyond their reach. Ivory is one of them.

"On a recent visit to China, I found twice as many shops selling ivory products than I saw only a few years ago," said Esmond Martin, a conservationist who has tracked the global ivory trade.

Chinese companies are making their mark, building roads in Ethiopia, buying up Sudan's oil, relaunching Sierra Leone's tourism industry. It is easy to see why; African markets are a huge potential source of profit for China's fast growing economy. But occasionally, trade goes in the other direction.

The boom in ivory is bad news for Africa's elephants. Ever since the global ivory trade was banned in 1990, most countries in sub-Saharan Africa have managed to reduce poaching. Some illegal trade has persisted, particularly in Sudan's capital Khartoum, and the battlefields of the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the difficulties of selling and shipping ivory around the world has deterred many would-be traders.

Now, with new demand booming in China, leading wildlife experts are concerned that the killing of elephants will again become a lucrative career choice.

"When the ivory ban first came into effect, very few Chinese could afford to buy trinkets of any sort," said Richard Leakey, former head of Kenya Wildlife Services. "Now, tens of thousands of people have the money to buy ivory, which has maintained its status as a desirable status symbol."

The effects are also being felt outside China. In the last eight years, the price of ivory in Khartoum has doubled, from £25 for a kilogram of raw ivory, to £60 today. Mr Martin is convinced the increase is caused by rising demand from Chinese contract workers arriving in Sudan.

While the Sudanese government has recently cracked down on illegal trading, there are fears the industry will spring back to life in a few months.

Mr Martin said: "The ripples from the Chinese market are being felt around the world. As Chinese workers get sent to African countries, they track down new sources of ivory and take them home. People in other south-east Asian countries then learn that ivory is sold in China and travel there to buy pieces to take home."

Mr Martin has also spotted Chinese traders selling ivory, which he believes to be illegal, in London's Portobello Road market.

A recent study estimates that 4,000 African elephants would be killed each year to meet this new demand in both Asia and Africa. As there are now estimated to be just 300,000 elephants in Africa, down from 1.3 million in 1979, this new wave of culling could decimate elephant populations. The killing is most likely to take place in central African countries, which do not have the resources to stop poaching.

"The only way we are going to curb this new demand is to work with Chinese civil society to convince people that ivory is not acceptable," said Mr Leakey.

"Until people realise the damage it does, they will simply continue buying."