In early October, Hong Kong customs agents seized 189 elephant tusks worth about $1.5 million. The shipment, from Cote d’Ivoire and destined for China, weighed nearly 1700 pounds. It was the third interception in Hong Kong of illegal African ivory and other goods since July, the first being worth $2.2 million and the second $5.3 million. The first came from Togo and the second, which also included rhinoceros horn and leopard skins, from Nigeria.

An estimated 70 percent of global demand for ivory and rhino horn stems from China, the remainder from Thailand and Vietnam. Ivory and rhino horn are valued for ceremonial, religious, and cultural purposes.  Most of the elephant tusks are turned into jewelry, curios, and religious artifacts. Rhino horn is often ground up and the powder used medicinally, especially nowadays in the mistaken belief that it “cures” cancer and is an aphrodisiac.

Nearly all of the lucrative trade in elephant and rhinoceros tusks and horns is illegal, and the result of poaching by Africans, many of whom are employed by Chinese entrepreneurs living throughout mainland Africa.  Wildlife trafficking syndicates consistently sell poached ivory and rhino horn at Chinese markets in most of the major cities of southern Afric particularly in Johannesburg and Maputo.  An undercover sting earlier this month in one market found abundant quantities of ivory and rhino horn being sold by Africans to Chinese middlemen.

Chinese demand clearly drives the trade. A pound of ivory often fetches $1000 on the streets of Beijing. Rhino horn is more valuable, costing about $30,000 a pound in Beijing or Hanoi. The United Nations Environment Program says that since the largest ivory market in the world is in China, “Nowhere is the need for demand reduction more critical.”  China is the epicenter of demand,” said a senior State Department official. “Without the demand from China, this would all but dry up.” There is no African market for ivory or horn that is not driven by external demand. 

High-ranking officers in the People’s Liberation Army have a fondness for ivory trinkets as gifts. Chinese online forums offer a thriving, and essentially unregulated, market for ivory chopsticks, bookmarks, rings, cups and combs.

This demand, fueled in part by rapidly rising incomes in Asia, has led in this decade to the unprecedented decimation of elephants and rhinoceroses throughout the continent, but particularly in southern and eastern Africa where both mammals are more abundant and where there have been (until now) improvements in the numbers of both species in such countries as Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. But tens of thousands of elephants are today being slaughtered annually. The Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, and the Sudan have been the locales of equally pernicious attacks on what were once large herds of elephants.

Whereas in 2000 there were an estimated 1 million elephants and 60,000 rhinoceroses in sub-Saharan Africa, now there are widely believed to be only a maximum of 400,000 and 28,000, the latter mostly in South Africa.  Sub-Saharan Africa has 90 percent fewer rhinoceroses today than it had in 1977.  In South Africa alone the number of rhino killed yearly has soared from 13 to 630 between 2007 and 2012.

Poaching in the 1980s and 1990s was by Africans for sale to non-Asian middlemen and thence for onward sale to China, Thailand, and Vietnam. In more recent years, Chinese entrepreneurs have financed much of the poaching in Africa from bases in east and southern Africa. Zambians believe (but with only circumstantial evidence to date), for example, that Chinese syndicates in remote parts of the North Luangwa region of the country are supplying the weapons and the funding for rogue groups of local Zambians who have been apprehended killing elephants and carting their tusks off for export.

In Kenya a few months ago, a series of Chinese individuals were caught attempting to fly out of Nairobi with concealed bundles of ivory and rhinoceros horn. In 2011, more than 150 Chinese citizens were arrested across Africa, from Kenya to Nigeria, for smuggling ivory. And there is growing anecdotal evidence that poaching increases in elephant-rich areas where Chinese construction workers are building roads.

Whatever the truth of Chinese entrepreneurial involvement in poaching itself, since most of the smuggled ivory and horn is destined for re-sale within China, it is clear that the Chinese government could, if it wished, reduce or stanch overall demand for such illicit goods by heavily taxing, otherwise regulating, or banning the sale of ivory and horn products within China. It could also provide material assistance to those African governments that now struggle to cope with poachers.  It would take very little financing to turn poachers into protectors, as Kenya has already done to some degree.

China has the means and the responsibility to do more than it is now doing to save elephants and rhinoceroses from destruction. After all, in part the Ming voyages to Africa in the fifteenth century were about bringing “celestial” animals back to Beijing to boost imperial prestige

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