Demand for Illegal Ivory Explodes in Asia, Where Industry Expands Despite Ban

Despite a 1990 global treaty illegalizing the sale of elephant tusks, religious faiths across Asia value ivory and are willing to pay for it. In China, demand has been met with the construction of major factories to process and produce religious icons. Hari Sreenivasan talks to National Geographic reporter Bryan Christy.

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    We turn now to the ivory trade, a business that is causing the deaths of record numbers of elephants, this despite a global treaty that took effect in 1990 banning the sale or trade of ivory and signed by 176 nations.

    For that story, we go again to Hari Sreenivasan.


    These tusks are worth thousands of dollars. But to some of the world's faithful, they have much higher, richer spiritual value. Last year, 34.7 tons of illegal ivory was seized globally by law enforcement and wildlife management authorities.

    Much of it was in, or going to, Asia. According to the cover story in this month's National Geographic, the hunger for ivory in Asia is being stoked by a demand for religious icons, like these used in Catholic processions in the Philippines, carved from the tusks of elephants.

    Factories in China, like this one owned by the government, turn out thousands of pieces each year, many of them later blessed and consecrated by Buddhist monks. The appetite for ivory isn't limited to one religion in Asia. Groups of Christians, Buddhists and Muslims all covet it.

    National Geographic's two-year investigation revealed that governments are often complicit in the purchasing and processing of ivory. The magazine also found that ivory traffickers are operating with impunity, thwarting poorly written international laws and ineffective organizations designed to clamp down on the illegal trade.

    Even in countries where corruption is widespread, ivory that is seized by the authorities often disappears. In 2006, a government storeroom in Thailand, like this one in Bangkok, was raided, and the tusks were replaced with plastic replicas. Meanwhile, in 2011, more elephants were poached than in any year since a global ban on ivory trading was passed in 1989. They were killed for their tusks and tusks alone.

    The reporter on the story, Bryan Christy, joins us now.

    Thanks for being with us.

  • BRYAN CHRISTY, National Geographic:

    It's a pleasure to be here, Hari.


    So, kind of the big question, didn't the planet, so to speak, say ivory trade was illegal back in 1990?


    It did. It did.

    And as soon as it did, elephant populations began to recover. But not everyone agreed. Three African countries said, we have sufficient elephant populations. We want to trade ivory. And Asia, particularly Japan and China, wanted to buy.

    And so the first break in that ban began — was in 1999. Japan was allowed to make a purchase of 50 tons of ivory. It was supposed to be an experiment to see how that worked. And without much ability to measure the impact of that break, they allowed a second one in 2008. And that's when China got involved and things really began to change.


    And so what are the measurable impacts that we know because of these two giant loopholes that we could drive a truckload of ivory through?


    Causation is a difficult thing to prove, but certainly what we have seen, particularly after this second sale, where we have over 100 tons sold to China and Japan, we have seen massive unparalleled killing in the last 10 years across Africa; 90 percent of dead elephants found in Central Africa have been poached.

    We're seeing unprecedented levels since the ban of ivory trafficking. And we're seeing in China, particularly, very strong growth in trafficking and a desire for more ivory.


    Let's talk a little bit about on the demand side.

    You take us into this world in China that most people probably have never been into, A., the kind of money that they're spending on these incredibly gorgeous objects, but the fact that the government has factories, they have schools, they even have retail outlets on where you can sell or how you can sell it?


    That's right.

    The key player for ivory is not — is generally said to be China, but it is not China. It's the Chinese government. The Chinese government was the major buyer at this 2008 auction. They bought over 60 percent of the ivory for themselves.

    They have — they have built a factory. It's the largest ivory-carving factory in China. I visited there. I was there two weeks ago post the story. They are training people in schools. They are building a capacity. So it's not just — the thing to focus on is not what just happened up to now, but is everything about China is saying, we have done this, we have opened the door to ivory, and we're ready to get bigger.

    And everything about China is capacity, when it comes to ivory, expanding capacity.


    You know, one of the questions that we had across social media, what is the consumer responsibility in all this? There's no fair trade ivory, per se, is there?



    The only legal ivory is ivory that either came in before the ban — and that's true across the world — or ivory that is in these two countries, China and Japan. But consumers — well, we can put it this way. If consumers stopped buying, elephants would stop dying.

    And consumers — you know, there are lots of reasons that it makes sense to kill an elephant in Africa. You're a poor person. An elephant is intruding on your space. Imagine if an elephant were in your yard. There are — these sorts of questions become complicated the closer you get to an actual elephant.

    But the consumption, none of this would — all of the bad elements, the corruption, the dead rangers in the field, the dead poachers even, none of that would happen without people buying ivory.


    But what's the thing — after these two years that you spent reporting the story, what's an image or a moment that kind of sticks in your head?


    There was one particular moment where we were driving along, and the light was coming down. It was sort of — the sky was gray, and we had been driving for some time.

    And I looked to the right and realized there had been an enormous herd of elephants that we had been driving along no one had noticed. And they had noticed us. And it was this — it was this incredible moment that really was moving for me, and you could see in an instant the society and the social structure that I had been reading about at work. And these were sentient equals, certainly with equal rights to life.

    And I have held that image throughout the investigation.


    All right, Bryan Christy from the National Geographic, thanks so much for your time.


    Well, thank you very much.