Blood Ivory: Hong Kong Fights a Losing Battle Against Smugglers

China's demand for elephant ivory, which is still widely seen as a status symbol on the mainland, has transformed the port city of Hong Kong into a major transit point for illegal trade

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Environmental Investigation Agency

An elephant ivory tusk sits in the showroom of the New Friendship Store in 2007 in Dalian, China, where demand for illegal ivory is growing

An emperor, faced with the task of selecting a successor, devises a test: he lays out an array of valuable artifacts — items of gold, jade and ivory — and asks each of his sons to choose one treasure. One prince ponders his options for a while, before selecting an ivory scepter. The emperor is pleased. Ivory is valuable, he says, and also imbued with wisdom. The son with the scepter will rule.

This, of course, is merely a fable. But the tale of the emperor and his son hints at ivory’s enduring lure in China. For millennia, it has been seen as a symbol of wealth, a source of wisdom and a sign of nobility. This helps explain why more than 20 years after an international ban on the trade of elephant ivory, the business is booming. “With more disposable income in mainland China, many people are flaunting their wealth, and ivory is seen as a luxury product that confers status,” says Tom Milliken of the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network. “We are seeing the worst poaching of elephants and the worst illegal trade in ivory over the last 23 years.”

(MORE: Ivory Bonfire Highlights Elephant Poaching Crisis in Africa)

Slowing the slaughter may depend on the semiautonomous Chinese territory of Hong Kong. The city is a major transit point for shipments of illegal ivory on route from Africa to mainland China. And, though it has taken some aggressive steps to combat smuggling, the trade persists. Reliable statistics on how much ivory is smuggled through Hong Kong are hard to come by, but experts note that a substantial portion of China-bound ivory passes through the port city before heading north, through the Pearl River Delta, and to the country’s ivory heartland, Guangzhou. There, in factories, tusks cut from dead elephants are transformed into decorative carvings of all shapes and sizes.

Despite the vigilant policing of the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department, which has twice been awarded the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) secretary general’s Certificate of Commendation for cracking down on illegal wildlife trade, curbing smuggling is difficult. The volume of trade that passes through Hong Kong’s ports is simply too large to inspect wholesale, say customs officials, and ivory smugglers know that the odds of being detected are relatively low. Of the 60,000 containers that move through the port every day, 700 customs agents are able to inspect less than 1% of them — those profiled as high risk. “It’s virtually impossible for any agency in Hong Kong to inspect every container,” says Lam Tak-fai, the head of Ports and Maritime Command at Hong Kong’s customs agency. “No country in the world could do that.”

Even when illegal consignments are found, it’s difficult to identify, let alone prosecute, the smugglers. From 2010 to 2011, Hong Kong customs seized 20 illegal ivory consignments totaling nearly 6,000 kg, but because it’s difficult to trace the shipments to the smuggling rings from which they emerge, few convictions resulted. Last November, Hong Kong customs officials found 60 kg of ivory chopsticks and bracelets as well as several rhino horns hidden inside of a container filled with plastic scrap. Though customs identified the importer of the container, a Hong Kong–based company that deals with scrap metals, agents were unable to gather enough evidence to press charges.

(MORE: Hundreds of Elephants Slaughtered in Cameroon as Ivory Demand Skyrockets)

Because of the practical challenges of controlling trade, experts say, it is imperative to disrupt demand. When the elephant-ivory trade was banned worldwide in 1989 many traders and carvers expected mammoth tusks to satisfy the Chinese appetite for ivory. Imported from Russia, mammoth tusk is comparable in appearance and price to elephant tusk and, initially, seemed a suitable replacement. Yet shop owners say it’s difficult to sell mammoth ivory and other alternative products. “Asians still prefer elephant ivory,” says Michael Lau, a shopkeeper at Cho’s Arts and Crafts on Hollywood Road. “Their mind is still set. They think elephant-ivory product is better than mammoth product. In their mind, they think elephant ivory is more perfect because mammoth is already aged.”

China’s appetite for ivory only seems to grow with the country’s economy. A July report from CITES found that China was the only country in which household consumption expenditure (how much people spend on good and services) strongly correlates with the rate of illegally killed elephants. Growing consumer demand for ivory, says the CITES report, is reflected in the steady rise in the wholesale price paid for illegal raw ivory by carvers and manufacturers. From 2002 to 2004, the cost of illicit raw ivory doubled from $150 to $300 per kilogram, and it doubled again to $700 per kilogram from 2004 to 2010, according to the report.

So much illegal ivory ends up in China that more than half of all large-scale seizures (any above 800 kg) occur within its borders. From 2009 to 2011, this totaled 29,000 kg, according to data from the Elephant Traffic Information System, a global monitoring system for tracking illegal ivory trade. The payoff for smugglers is huge: over the past year, the black-market price of raw ivory has more than tripled in China, from $270 to $900 per pound. Finished ivory carvings can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars each, while intricately carved tusks can sell for more than a million.

Hong Kong’s Hollywood Road is one destination for discerning ivory buyers. There, among quaint antique shops and modern showrooms, consumers can find ivory trinkets that were made before the 1989 international trade ban on elephant ivory. “The Chinese people still love ivory very much,” says Alice Chan, a manager at Prestige Crafts, one of the few thriving mammoth-ivory stores in Hong Kong. Prestige Crafts has invested considerably in shifting Chinese opinion on ivory — whether that means attending costly crafts shows in Shanghai or touring its famed master carver through China.

(MORE: Call to Lift Ivory Sales Ban Threatens African Elephants)

But elephant ivory, Chan says, is still considered more “Chinese” than ivory alternatives. Koon Yee-wan, a professor of art history at the University of Hong Kong, argues that the contemporary demand for illicit ivory products reflects a longer legacy of Chinese ivory consumption. During the Ming dynasty, elephant ivory became a regulated luxury good, available only to the upper echelons of society, Koon explains. Over time, a burgeoning merchant class sought to possess ivory in an effort to gain social standing and emulate the tastes of the literati. Koon likens China’s emerging rich to this merchant class. “It is about consumption,” she says, “but it also goes hand in hand with a historic value.”

Conservationists argue that the Chinese government has the power to curb demand for elephant ivory, but that it simply lacks the will to do so. The Environmental Investigation Agency argues that China’s successful clampdown on the illegal trade of rhino horn in the early 1990s is evidence that the government has more than enough power to put a stop to the illicit animal trade — if it wants to. For now, most of the campaigns to reduce demand in China are run by nonprofit organizations, who are enlisting the help of celebrities like basketball star Yao Ming.

While the mainland Chinese government has yet to start a nationwide clampdown on ivory smugglers, authorities in Hong Kong are working to stop the trade and protect the city’s reputation. “We have a strong determination to stop this from happening,” says Lam of the customs department. But, with rising demand, determination alone is not enough. The greatest challenge faced by law-enforcement officers and conservationists in the fight against ivory smuggling is captured in a campaign slogan by WildAid, a nonprofit group that combats illegal wildlife trade. “When the buying stops,” the ad reads, “the killing can too.”

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