China’s Blood Ivory Bazaar
– Beijing claims to oppose the illicit traffic in the tusks of elephants butchered by poachers. In fact, it’s created a booming market –
HONG KONG, China — The meeting took place in a private room in a Shenzhen restaurant. Within a navy blue duffel bag were clattering bone-hued beads, amulets, and bracelets.…
He placed a disk in my hand, with a hole drilled near its rim and a red tassel dangling from it to assume the appearance of a lucky charm. It nearly covered the entirety of my palm and had a Chinese poem carved on one side, with a bull on the other. The cross-hatched Schreger pattern on its surface was unmistakably that of ivory. “That piece is ¥2,000 [$320],” he said. “Everything I sell is processed in my workshop. I hire skilled carvers, and we can handle bigger pieces too.” He removed the bubble wrap around a lump drawn from his bag and revealed a rotund Laughing Buddha, about eight inches tall with a hard white belly rolling forth. “This one is ¥24,500 [nearly $4,000].” He was disappointed that I was not ready to bargain. For a moment, I measured the risk of carrying that sack in public. He traveled alone. What if he was mugged as he left our meeting?
“Most of it is from Ethiopia,” he said. On the screen of his smartphone, he swiped through pictures of elephants lying on the ground, lifeless, a mixture of red earth and redder blood caked onto their bodies, tusks freshly severed by chain saws and hoisted like trophies by grinning, sweaty, dusty poachers. The shots serve as proof of sourcing for his clients. Blood ivory is a big business in China.
Ivory purchases are officially discouraged by the Chinese government. Token efforts to spread the message include billboard ads in Chinese airports denouncing the ivory trade, and SMS messages sent to Chinese tourists by their embassies when they visit certain African countries advising them to not bring any ivory home. Yet objects made from elephant tusks are still considered symbols of wealth and status. Some even think of ivory purchases as investments, or an alternate way to park cash, and believe that the value of their acquisitions will balloon in time. The demand for ivory remains high among a select community.
Image (c) Alex Lee/Reuters