2:36am

Fri March 2, 2012
Asia

Looking For Elephant Ivory? Try China

Originally published on Fri March 2, 2012 7:53 am

Armed with tips from animal welfare activists, I recently went on an ivory hunt with my Chinese assistant, Yang, in an antiques market in Beijing.

Activists say China's growing purchasing power is driving global demand for products from vulnerable animals, everything from elephant ivory to rhino horn.

Two huge stone lions stood sentinel outside the four-story market nestled among a forest of buildings off one of Beijing's beltways. In China, vendors usually accost shoppers and try to lure them into stores.

Not here.

I was the only foreign face in the market. Shop clerks suspected I was there to investigate, which in a sense I was.

Yang fared better. Four out of the nine shops he visited showed him illegal ivory, including bracelets and a necklace that cost more than $300.

"The ivory was hidden in a box, and the box was under the counter," Yang said afterward, describing the ivory necklace.

Despite occasional crackdowns and even prison sentences, scores of shops in China continue to sell illegal ivory, according to outside investigators.

Last November, the International Fund for Animal Welfare cased the same mall that Yang and I did, and the group found more than 20 shops selling illegal ivory.

A separate survey last year by Esmond Martin, a renowned analyst of the ivory trade, found nearly 4,000 illegal ivory pieces for sale in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou.

Martin said he found twice as much ivory for sale in Guangzhou than he did during a similar survey in 2004.

Pushing Up Prices

Grace Gabriel, Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, says Chinese aren't just buying more ivory these days; they're also pushing up prices.

She says the price for raw elephant tusk has more than tripled in the past year from as low as $270 a pound to more than $900 a pound.

Ivory has long been a status symbol in China, but Gabriel, who grew up in Beijing, says rising incomes are driving even greater demand.

China's housing and stock markets have both taken hits, and the nation's super rich are looking for other places to invest their cash.

"A lot of [wealthy Chinese] now are looking at collectibles and artifacts, particularly things they see as holding value," she says.

Gabriel says illegal ivory sales are rampant online. Sitting in her office in the Chinese capital, she taps her computer keyboard and goes to Baidu, China's giant search engine.

She punches in "xiang ya," which means "elephant ivory" in Chinese, and a list of ivory for sale appears.

"This whole forum, every listing — it has hundreds of pages, and every single one has ivory on them," Gabriel says.

From Africa To China

Most ivory here comes from Africa. Authorities around the world seized more than 5,000 smuggled tusks last year. Among the seizures was one in August in Hong Kong where customs officials found nearly 800 pieces of elephant tusk.

In November, a similar bust in Kenya yielded 87 pieces of smuggled ivory, which was on its way to a Chinese metals company in Hong Kong.

Martin, the ivory trade expert, says Chinese workers living in Africa are also driving demand there.

Many go to Africa to build roads and help China extract oil and minerals. As far back as 2005, Martin found them buying ivory chopsticks and animal figurines from shops in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.

"Seventy-five percent of the buyers were Chinese," Martin recalls. "Actually, I photographed them buying some of these items."

Steve Trent, co-founder of WildAid, a global conservation group, says China knows there's a problem and is trying to do something about it.

"They are making seizures at airports like Beijing and Shanghai, where much of the ivory is entering the marketplace," Trent says.

But he adds that China's government — which refused to talk to NPR for this story — needs to do more.

Trent says groups like his also have to convince Chinese people to stop buying ivory.

Raising Awareness

WildAid has filled headrest video screens in thousands of Shanghai and Beijing taxis with ads featuring big Chinese stars, such as Yao Ming, the former center for the NBA's Houston Rockets. In one ad, Yao leaps up and blocks a bullet fired at an elephant.

"When the buying stops, then the killing will, too," Yao says in Chinese.

These sorts of awareness efforts seem to be having some impact.

At another Beijing antiques market — where smuggled ivory is also sold — Huang Xiaofei browses for furniture with a friend on a chilly weekday morning. Huang, 26, is from rural Central China and works as a massage therapist.

"When I was young, I didn't know anything of elephant ivory," Huang says as he wanders past vendors who have laid out their wares on blankets, everything from Mao's Little Red Book to Chinese scrolls.

But as Huang grew up, he saw things that got him thinking.

"From documentaries and Discovery Channel, I learned about elephants," he continues. "They are beautiful, graceful and very protective of their families. Seeing elephants killed really hurts me emotionally."

Huang has seen the Yao Ming ads and finds them affecting as well. He says it seems such a waste to kill these extraordinary creatures for their tusks. Now, a key to protecting elephants is to get more people in China to start thinking the same way.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's go now to China, where hunger for resources drives both demand and prices - and not just for energy and minerals. As purchasing power has exploded, more Chinese have been implicated in smuggling and selling ivory from Africa.

NPR's Frank Langfitt went on a search for ivory in China's capital.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: So I'm here right now at an antique market in the southern part of Beijing. They have these big stone lions outside. And we've gotten some tips that as many as seven - maybe many more - stores here are selling ivory. And I'm with my assistant, Yang.

YANG: Hi.

LANGFITT: And we're going to go and split up, and try to talk to as many people as we can, and try to find some ivory.

(Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: (Foreign language spoken)

I browse through shops, but I'm the only foreign face here. Sellers eye me warily. No one will show me any ivory.

So we're back out here; it's about an hour later. Yang, what'd you find?

YANG: I visited nine shops, out of which four sell ivory product. I saw some necklaces, some bracelets.

LANGFITT: And was this stuff openly displayed, or was it somewhere else?

YANG: They were hidden in some boxes.

LANGFITT: The International Fund for Animal Welfare cased the same mall in November. They found more than 20 shops selling illegal ivory. Grace Gabriel is the group's Asia regional director. She grew up here in Beijing. And Gabriel says Chinese aren't just buying more ivory these days. They're also pushing up prices.

GRACE GABRIEL: We really didn't anticipate the price that we are seeing today. In raw elephant tusk price, we have seen it tripled in the past year.

LANGFITT: From as little as $270 a pound to more than $900 a pound. Ivory has long been a status symbol in China. But Gabriel says rising incomes are driving even greater demand. With China's housing market in decline and the stock market a crapshoot, the nation's super-rich are looking for other places invest their cash.

GABRIEL: A lot of them now are looking at collectibles and artifacts, particularly of things that they see as holding value.

LANGFITT: Gabriel says illegal ivory sales are rampant online. She taps her computer keyboard and goes to Baidu, China's giant search engine.

GABRIEL: If I put in xiangya - it means elephant ivory - this whole forum, every listing; it's got hundreds of pages, and every single one has ivory on them.

LANGFITT: Most ivory here comes from Africa. Authorities around the world seized more than 500 smuggled tusks last year. Among the seizures was one in August in Hong Kong, where customs found nearly 800 pieces of elephant tusk.

Kenyan TV reported a similar bust in November.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Export documents reveal that the 87 pieces of contraband ivory belonged to Camtrade East Africa and were being exported to Guangdong Carport(ph) Metal company in Hong Kong.

LANGFITT: Esmond Martin is a world expert in the ivory trade. When I met him last year at his home in Nairobi, he said Chinese workers living in Africa are also driving demand. Many come to the continent to build roads, and help China extract oil and minerals. As far back as 2005, Martin found them buying ivory in Northern Sudan.

ESMOND MARTIN: The ivory was moving up to Khartoum, and 75 percent of the buyers were Chinese.

LANGFITT: What were they buying?

MARTIN: Chinese type of things, which are chopsticks and name seals. Plus, they like small animals, like hippos - figurines of hippos. I actually photographed them buying some of these items.

LANGFITT: Steve Trent says China knows there's a problem and is trying to do something about it. Trent is co-founder of WildAid, a global conservation group.

STEVE TRENT: They are making seizures at airports like Beijing and Shanghai, where much the ivory is now coming in and entering the marketplace.

LANGFITT: But Trent says China's government, which refused to talk to NPR about this story, needs to do more. And group's like his have to convince Chinese people to stop buying ivory.

WildAid has targeted thousands of Shanghai and Beijing taxis with ads like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

LANGFITT: Yao Ming, the former Houston Rockets basketball star, leaps up and blocks a bullet fired at an elephant.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

YAO MING: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: That's Chinese for when the buying stops, then the killing will, too.

There are signs these awareness efforts are having an impact. At another Beijing antique market, where smuggled ivory is also sold, Huang Xiaofei is browsing for furniture with a friend. Huang is a 26 years old, a massage therapist from rural Central China.

HUANG XIAOFEI: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: When I was young, he tells me, I didn't know anything of elephant ivory. I lived in the countryside.

But as Huang grew up, he saw things that got him thinking.

HUANG: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: From documentaries and Discovery Channel, l learned about elephants, he says. They're beautiful, graceful, and very protective of their families. Seeing elephants killed really hurts me emotionally. Now, Huang says, it seems like such a waste to kill these extraordinary creatures for their tusks.

A key to protecting elephants, going forward, is to get more people in China to start thinking the same way.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.