World News‎ > ‎

China's consumerism latest threat to Africa's elephants, report

posted 31 Aug 2011, 08:21 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 31 Aug 2011, 08:25 ]
China's fast-growing middle class, combined with lax policing of the country's otherwise rigorous ivory laws, threatens elephant populations in Africa according to a report presented at a CITES meeting in August.

 TSAVO, KENYA. KENYA WILDLIFE SERVICES - Poaching of elephants and other species has increased in Central African countries, with products headed mainly to Asian markets.

These tusks found in the east African Zanzibar archipelego may have come from as far away as central and west Africa.

A report that was presented at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Geneva in mid-August said the fast-growing Chinese middle class, combined with lax policing of the Asian country's ivory laws, is a big threat to elephant populations in Africa.

Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne, the authors of the report, visited ivory carving factories and stores in southern China in January.

They compared the data with that which they had collated in previous visits going back to 1985.

Despite rigourous laws controlling the sale of ivory in China, the industry was booming and much of it appeared to be unregulated, they found.

"China is the biggest importer of illegal ivory in the world, most of it coming from Africa but a little bit from Asia and to better control this the Chinese authorities introduced in 2004 a system where every piece of ivory must have an identification card and we were looking at whether this was true and the identification card has to be close by to the piece and what we found in southern China was that 63 percent of the 6,500 ivory pieces that we saw did not have the appropriate identification cards and thus was illegal," Martin said at his home in Kenya's Capital, Nairobi.

The imposition of controls over ivory sales won China CITES approval to buy and sell ivory from legal stocks and in 2008 China imported 62 tonnes of elephant ivory from CITES-approved auctions in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.

Martin, who monitors the sale of elephant ivory and rhino horn around the world said that of 80 outlets he visited, only eight had compulsory ivory identification cards on display.

He said it is possible that two-thirds of all ivory being sold in southern China today is illegal because it doesn't have proper identification.

Fuelling the illegal trade in ivory, according to Martin, is a growing demand from China's consumer class.

"When I first went to China in 1985, 99 percent of the ivory I saw was bought by foreigners and now the majority of the ivory in southern China is bought by Chinese because they have always liked ivory and they are now wealthy enough to purchase it," he said.

Martin said he was concerned by the way unregulated demand in China has led to rising prices for ivory and given incentive to poachers of elephant herds in Africa. He said a kilo could fetch 750 US dollars today, compared with maybe 300-400 US dollars a few years ago.

But it is not just elephants that are being killed.

"People are being killed in the field trying to kill elephants, government officers are being killed as well by poachers, this trade is encouraging massive corruption in Africa and people are being bribed and removed to get the stuff out of the continent and over to China," Martin said.

A CITES report released in Geneva last week said the highest levels of elephant poaching since 2002 were recorded in 2010, with central Africa of most concern.

CITES officials announced the creation of a 100 million US dollar fund to enhance law enforcement and secure the long-term survival of elephant populations.

As for China, it can be part of the solution, Martin said.

"When they catch people and arrest them, people are found guilty -- which they are, they go into prison for some years. So the Chinese are taking it very seriously. But what they haven't been taking seriously is whether the items of ivory that you see in the shops have proper documentation."

Kenya reported this year that it was seeing slow growth in elephant numbers in its premier elephant game park, the Tsavo National Park despite poaching and recent droughts but that rise is not echoed in other African countries or even in other parts of Kenya where poaching has reached record highs.