Elephant poaching in Africa and Asia is being fueled by China’s economic boom, according to a study of the ivory trade.
Authors of the new report found that the number of ivory items on sale in key centers in southern China has more than doubled since 2004, with most traded illegally. The survey comes amid reports of a dramatic rise in rhino poaching across Africa, and a spate of thefts of rhino horns from European museums and auction houses.
Based on the results of their survey, the ivory researchers are calling for China to tighten its enforcement of ivory trading regulations, saying that such a move is vital to reduce the number of elephants that are killed illegally. The report is published on the eve of a meeting in Geneva of the CITES organization, which is responsible for controlling trade in endangered species.
Esmond Martin, a Kenya-based expert on the ivory and rhino-horn trade, and his colleague Lucy Vigne surveyed ivory-carving factories and shops in Guangzhou and Fuzhou in January. In Guangzhou, they found that the volume of ivory goods on sale had doubled since 2004. However, while some of the ivory they found being carved or sold was being traded legally — including an increasing number of prehistoric mammoth tusks imported from Russia — most lacked legally required documentation, and many traders were unregistered.
In Guangzhou, of 6,437 items on sale, 61 percent were being traded illegally. Martin said that some traders admitted having illegal ivory, or pretended that newly carved items were old.
“This suggests official inspections and confiscations have not taken place in most shops,” says the survey, which was commissioned by two British wildlife charities, Elephant Family and the Aspinall Foundation, as well as the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in the US state of Ohio.
The international trade in elephant ivory was banned in 1990, but in recent years, some auctions of tusks from elephants that have died naturally, or which had been confiscated from poachers, have been permitted in a small number of African countries. Chinese traders bought 62 tonnes of ivory in 2008 from Namibia, Botswana and South Africa.
Supporters of the sales say that the proceeds can fund conservation, but opponents say that any legal trade risks encouraging poaching.
“It is shocking that the retail ivory trade is not better controlled in southern China,” Martin said on Saturday. “China continues to be the largest importer of illegal ivory in the world, mostly from Africa, but also from endangered Asian elephants. Inspections of shops would not take much money nor manpower and would cut down this illegal trade significantly if carried out effectively. Such law enforcement is urgent to reduce elephant poaching.”
There has also been a dramatic surge in rhino poaching across Africa. The price of rhino horn has soared in East Asia, where it is used in alternative medicine. In South Africa alone, where horn is worth more per gram than cocaine, the monitoring network Traffic reported that 333 rhinos were killed last year, and 193 in the first six months of this year. In 2007, only 13 rhinos were poached.
There have also been more than 20 thefts from museums and auction houses in Europe. The Natural History Museum in London has now replaced its rhino horns with fakes, while the Horniman Museum in southeast London has removed its collection entirely.