National Geographic : 2012 Oct
Carving Factory, the price of raw ivory has risen to times the price paid in Africa. e genie cannot be returned to her bottle: e legal ivory will forever shelter smuggled ivory. ere is one nal aw in the decision to let China buy ivory. To win approval, China instituted a variety of safeguards, most notably that any ivory carving larger than a trinket must have a photo ID card. But criminals have turned the ID-card system into a smuggling tool. In the ID cards' tiny photographs, carvings with similar religious and traditional motifs all look alike. A recent report by the International Fund for Ani- mal Welfare found that ivory dealers in China are selling ivory carvings but retaining their ID cards to legitimize carvings made from smug- gled ivory. e cards themselves now have value and are tradable in a secondary market. China's ID-card system, which gives a whi of legitimacy to an illegal icon, is worse than no system at all. Just before elephants were discussed at an August meeting, China orchestrated the expulsion of all attending NGOs. It was an extraordinary act. Among those expelled were representatives of the Born Free Foundation, the Humane Society International, the Japan Fed- eration of Ivory Arts and Cra s Associations, the Pew Charitable Trust, Safari Club Interna- tional, and me (for the National Geographic Society). Tra c's Tom Milliken was allowed to remain to deliver his latest results. e rea- son for the expulsion, Meng tells me, was a re- port by a small but in uential London-based NGO, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which had sent undercover Chinese op- eratives into China. EIA alleged that China's ivory-control system was a failure, that up to percent of the ivory on the Chinese market was illegal, and that the auctions had resur- rected the illegal ivory trade. Meng was out- raged. Yes, he said, percent of EIA's report was true, "but they should have come to us rst." Last year made a startling admission: " e Secretariat continues to struggle to under- stand many aspects of the illegal trade in ivory." is past April, Tom Milliken confessed some- thing to the BBC that was eerily reminiscent of China's warning a er the Japan experiment: "Did allowance of legal ivory to go into China exacer- bate a situation? One could probably argue now, with hindsight, that indeed it did. It created per- haps an image in the minds of many potential Chinese consumers that it was OK to buy ivory." Meng chuckles as I pour him another bottle of beer. He tells me that a er the African ivo- ry arrived in China, a strange sound could be heard coming from one shipment. It took some time to discover the source. During the bidding South Africa's ivory had looked the best and the whitest. Now some tusks were splitting open. "You could hear it cracking," Meng says. To get a good price, he speculates, the South Africans had bleached their ivory white, and now dehy- dration was causing the tusks to crack. Even more precious than the savanna ele- phant's white ivory is the yellow ivory of the smaller, forest elephant. " is is the best," the Daxin Ivory Carving Factory's Feng tells me, holding up a chunk of forest elephant tusk. Carvings made from forest elephant ivory sell out so quickly that customers have been com- missioning them. e only carved image he has le to show me is an old one of Chairman Mao with a crack in it. Trouble is, forest elephants don't live in any of the countries where China le- gally bought ivory. ey live in central and west- ern Africa, including in Cameroon, the country raided by Muslim poachers earlier this year. In March will meet again to discuss the future of the African elephant. j BY ALL ACCOUNTS, CHINA IS THE WORLD'S GREATEST VILLAIN WHEN IT COMES TO SMUGGLED IVORY.