Shopkeepers hunch over takeaway boxes at Beijing’s Dongfangbobao Market as sporadic lunchtime visitors wander between displays of jade, gold, bronze and bone curios. The market’s sleepy air belies its past as a dependable source of illegal ivory. Enquiries for “elephant teeth,” as it is known in Chinese, are now met with dismissive waves.
Antique dealer Ren Wenzhuo produces an intricately carved pendant from a glass display case before retrieving three more trinkets from a locked safe, each costing between 6,000 and 7,000 RMB (£607-708). But these small pieces, one of which allegedly dates from the 18th century, are of little concern to Chinese authorities. It is newly smuggled items that directly contribute to the decimation of Africa’s elephant population.
“We used to sell new ivory here but not any more,” says Ren. “Haven’t you seen the news? Ivory is like tiger skins; it harms animals.”
Dongfangbobao appears to be one of the latest targets of a reported government crackdown on illegal ivory marked by awareness campaigns in state-owned media, tougher sentences for unlicensed dealers and contraband seizures.
But the capital’s ivory shoppers need not look far for the coveted “white gold.”
Just over a mile north at Beijing Curio City, customers can find celestial scenes, imperial ships, and herds of water buffaloes carved from full-length elephant tusks. Accreditation certificates hang on the walls and each piece comes with a registration number.
By legitimising the sale of ivory sourced from natural elephant deaths, culls and police seizures, the registration system was introduced in 2004 to cut prices and profits in the black market. It has had the reverse effect. The wholesale price of ivory has tripled over the last nine years.
Legal retailers regularly use their businesses as a cover for unlawful sales. An investigation by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in 2011 found that almost 60 percent of authorised sellers and carving factories were involved in some form of laundering. Vendors regularly discourage customers from taking products’ identity cards and reuse them with illicit items.
Conservationists believe that the very existence of a licensed trade only serves to fuel demand in China, where ivory carving is considered a traditional art form. Revered as a status symbol by the country’s growing middle classes, ivory is also seen as a lucrative bet for investors facing diminishing returns on equity and real estate.
While the international ban in 1989 is widely credited with curtailing trade in the West, China is now the largest ivory market in the world and accounts for an estimated 70 per cent of global demand.
Its continued popularity may stem from a lack of knowledge about the scale and environmental impact of the trade, according to WildAid, the wildlife protection group behind a new awareness campaign. The organisation is using high-profile figures to highlight poaching and the quantity of illegal products in the Chinese market.
Fronting the campaign is former NBA basketball player and Olympic flag bearer Yao Ming, whose public influence in the recent campaign against shark fin soup has been widely lauded.
The drive appears to have yielded remarkable results. During this year’s Spring Festival, when shark fin soup is commonly eaten, the Chinese Commerce Ministry reported a 70 per cent drop in consumption compared with the previous year.
This success sets an encouraging precedent for ivory campaigners, according to WildAid’s chief representative in China, May Mei.
“Things move so quickly in China and as we are seeing with shark fin, it is possible to make a completely desirable product quickly unfashionable,” she says.
Mei also credits a government ban on the soup at official banquets with the turnaround in demand.
“If the government takes a strong stance on ivory, such as announcing no further legal imports or announcing a ban [on] officials giving ivory as gifts, the impact will be enormous,” she argues.
There have been promising signs from Chinese authorities. In the first conviction of its kind, a court in Fujian Province sentenced a licensed dealer found importing and selling illegal products to 15 years in prison in May.
Moves to curb illegal sales on unregulated online marketplaces have also seen the government ban all online wildlife trade and monitor key search terms. Conservation groups are working with search engine giant Baidu to purge illegal wildlife listings and shut down forums that facilitate black-market trade.
But with as many as 100 African elephants killed a day, attempts to tame this vast and elusive industry remain frustratingly, and perhaps fatally, slow. Although Illegal ivory is shrinking from view in markets like Dongfangbobao, its place in Chinese consumers’ eyes continues to pose the single greatest threat to the species’ survival.
Read more about our elephant appeal here