In a world of economic uncertainty, elephant ivory has become a new investment vehicle in China, which coincides with an extraordinary surge in the number of elephants being killed for their ivory.
A new ivory market investigation report released Monday by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW – www.ifaw.org) shows the legal sale of ivory stockpiles in 2008 has spurred demand, particularly in China where ivory is increasingly coveted by wealthy Chinese as “white gold.”
“Elephant ivory has, in a manner of speaking, become a new currency in China,” said Grace Gabriel, Asia Regional Director for IFAW. “The escalating demand has sent the price of ivory soaring. Couple that with the strengthening of the Chinese Yuan (RMB) against an ailing U.S. dollar, and suddenly buying illegal ivory in Africa and selling it at a huge profit in China becomes an extremely lucrative business.”
IFAW says the blame lies firmly at the door of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which in 2008 gave the go-ahead for the legal sale of ivory stockpiles by four South African countries to China and Japan.
Since 2009, when China took delivery of its purchase, the market for ivory there – legally traded or not–has exploded. Worldwide seizures of illegal ivory have matched this trend, with the media reporting that 5,259 ivory tusks (an astounding 23 tons) were confiscated in 2011 alone.
The Chinese regulatory system, introduced in 2004 with the intention of strictly controlling the domestic ivory market in line with CITES required conditions, has been rendered virtually impotent against the demand for ivory.
“Of the 158 ivory trade facilities visited in five cities by Chinese experts, 101 did not have government issued licenses and were operating illegally. Among licensed facilities, the majority abused the ivory control system in some way,” continued Gabriel. “The illicit ivory trading activities in both unlicensed and licensed but non-compliant facilities outnumbered properly legal facilities nearly six to one (135/23).”
IFAW’s 2011 survey (the fifth in Asia in 10 years) shows clearly how illegal ivory, once smuggled into China, is now easily laundered through the legal market. The report also sheds light on the strong economic incentive for Chinese engaging in ivory trafficking.
While the wholesale price per kilogram of ivory in RMB has tripled (4,500 yuan – 15,000 yuan) from 2006 to 2011, the RMB is increasing in value against the USD. In the overseas market where ivory is sourced, the strengthened Chinese currency provides more purchasing power to Chinese buyers who convert RMB to USD for ivory purchases. This, coupled with the ease with which smuggled ivory can be easily laundered in the legal market, means huge profits for criminals involved in illegal ivory trade.
“The CITES stockpile sales were supposed to reduce the illegal trade and the slaughter of elephants by saturating the market with legal ivory; in fact, the exact opposite has occurred,” remarked Gabriel.
“Legal ivory imports have provided opportunities for illegal ivory to be whitewashed in China. The insatiable demand for ivory as an investment has tripled the wholesale price of ivory, and currencies in flux have mixed to create a lethal combination that is decimating wild elephant populations,” she said.