Published in FOCUS magazine in May 2014.
The rise of China’s middle class means people can spend their disposable incomes on cars, electronics, and tragically, ivory. Principles of feng shui state that ivory disperses misfortune and drives out evil spirits, while Chinese culture declares it symbolic of wisdom and nobility. Either way, it makes a great gift. Furthermore, ivory, or xiangya literally translates to ‘elephant’s teeth’; consumers are not often aware that elephants must die to harvest their tusks.
Many see the commodity as a safer investment than the questionable housing market, bringing about its nickname of ‘white gold’. China’s increased involvement in Africa’s infrastructure over the past decade has streamlined the ivory trade supply chain, making it easier to illegally ship between Africa and Asia. In October 2012, authorities confiscated four tons of ivory, valued at US$3.5 million, from two cargo containers in Hong Kong, followed by 1.4 more tons two months later. Since the ships had passed through various ports to disguise their origins, Interpol believes organised crime was responsible.
In 1989, an international treaty banned the trade of ivory, killing the business in China. With ivory shops closing, the initiative was hugely successful. Once again, elephant populations grew. However, a 2008 exception to this treaty allowed Namibia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana to sell an ivory stockpile to China and Japan for US $15 million. With this new supply, both the Chinese ivory industry and international ivory poaching were reborn. In 2013, 25,000 elephants were killed in Africa, equivalent to three per hour – worse than before the 1989 ban. Today, all ivory sold in China is supposed to have come from the 2008 stockpile or before 1989 – items over 50 grams are required to have a certificate of provenance.
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