National Geographic : 2012 Oct
this stunning new gallery. Nothing in it is for sale. Xue is Li's only customer. " e elephant is a good friend of man," Li says. "When elephants die, they want to leave man something behind as a good deed to have a good next life." Li carves ivory to honor the elephant's gi . As Buddhists, Li and Xue abhor killing. eir ivory comes from the government, they explain, and so is supposed to be from elephants that died of natural causes. Just as some Filipino priests baptize ivory images, Buddhist monks perform a ceremony called kai guang, the opening of light, to con- secrate religious icons. "Ivory is very precious," Xue tells me, "so to be respectful of the Buddha one should use precious material. If not ivory then gold. But ivory is more precious." It is a ver- sion of the same message I heard from Filipino Catholics: Ivory honors God. In every shop and factory I visit in China, a substantial portion of the inventory consists of religious carvings, including many of the most valuable pieces. Among the high-end buyers are military o cers---surprisingly well paid in China---who give ivory to superior o cers and companies that give carvings to other businesses and government regulators to in uence them. "We call it the back door," a representative of the government's China Arts and Cra s Association (CACA) explained. And so ivory is used the way a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue might once have been, except that if the gi works, then ivory blesses its giver as well as its recipient. At a gallery in Guangzhou, Gary Zeng shows me a photo of a -layer "devil's work" ball on his iPhone. e -year-old Zeng has just bought two of these ivory balls from the Daxin Ivory Carving Factory, one for himself and one on behalf of an entrepreneur friend. He's come to this retail store to see whether he got his money's worth. I climb into his new Mercedes, drive to his double-gated community, and watch as he hands the less expensive ball to his three-year- old for National Geographic's Brent Stirton to photograph. It will become a centerpiece in a new home Zeng is building, to "hold the house against devils," but for a moment the , ball is simply a very precious toy. I ask Zeng why young entrepreneurs like him are buying ivory. "Value," he replies. "And art." "Do you think about the elephant?" I ask. "Not at all," he says. On the corner of one of the most popular ivory-selling streets in China, outside the Hua- lin International Buddhist jewelry arcade, a four-story electronic billboard runs a video announcing to passersby a hot new investment opportunity: Sales of Buddhist jewelry and re- lated religious products have reached . bil- lion a year and are growing by percent a year. " ere are nearly million Buddhism believ- ers in China," the sign declares. Inside the build- ing two stores deal exclusively in ivory carvings. Down the street other galleries o er Buddhist ivory carvings---some legal, some not. Everything about China's ivory industry is poised for growth. e government has licensed at least carving factories and ivory retail outlets and sponsors ivory carving at schools like the Beijing University of Technology. Most tell- ing of all, as in the Philippines, Chinese carvers such as Master Li are training their relatives--- they're investing in their own blood. In 1989, a er ten years during which at least one elephant died every ten minutes, Presi- dent George H. W. Bush unilaterally banned ivory imports, Kenya burned its 13 tons of ivory stocks, and announced the global MANY THAIS WEAR IVORY AMULETS TO BRING THEM LUCK AND PROTECT THEM FROM HARM AND BLACK MAGIC.