Two weeks ago, the Chinese government announced a one-year suspension on imports of carved ivory products from Africa. The move was seen as largely symbolic, a token action designed to head off the criticism the government expected from Prince William on his visit to China the following week. But it is a hopeful sign that the Chinese authorities are sensitive to the international outcry over the country’s role in fuelling demand for poached ivory, and its complicity in the massacre of elephants currently taking place all over Africa.
In response to international pressure, governments in China and Hong Kong are also taking action to destroy ivory stockpiles. By the end of June, Hong Kong will have destroyed 30 tonnes of illegal ivory – one of the largest commitments seen anywhere. However conservationists insist that the only way to smash Chinese demand for illegal ivory is by shutting down the legal domestic ivory trade, and thus depriving business to the workshops that turn smuggled ivory into consumer products.
While today in Kenya you may receive a fine of KSh 20 million (£142,000) or earn life in prison for possessing a single ivory product, in China you can freely carry around a whole polished tusk. In fact 83% of middle and upper income Chinese surveyed in 2013 by National Geographic said they were planning to buy ivory products.
The legal ivory trade in China is supposedly restricted to ivory from historical stockpiles that existed before the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) ban came into force in 1976, or from the one-off sale of 60 tonnes of ivory in 2008. China flatly denies it, but there is no doubt in the minds of experts and conservationists that the legal ivory trade is simply a cover for thriving black market in poached ivory. This black market fuels demand and keeps prices high, and drives the ongoing decimation of Africa’s elephant populations.
Most ivory smuggled into China from Africa arrives at the port of Hong Kong, which is reputed to be the world’s largest market for ivory. Last month Richard Leakey and I travelled to Hong Kong to find out for ourselves what could be done to reduce the demand for ivory.
Over the course of five days, we spoke to more than 3,000 people, including government officials, the media, school children, the business community and conservation charities. We gave lectures, held meetings, and I even visited ivory shops.
Before visiting a state school for boys, I was warned that the boys would be boisterous and likely to be distracted. In fact they sat in silence and listened carefully. Unlike pupils at other schools we visited, these 15-year-old boys did not cry or express horror at seeing pictures of dead elephants. But when they saw a bonfire of ivory they all screamed in shock.
At the end, when I invited the boys to help us with solutions, they were very shy about speaking up in English. But afterwards a boy came to me and made a suggestion I had never heard before. He told me that ivory is coveted in China because of its whiteness: the whiter it is, the more valuable it is. “Why don’t we stain it and make it ugly?” he suggested. This would help prevent government stockpiles from ending up in the traffickers’ hands. He had no idea how this could be done but was ready to go and figure it out.
This wild out-of-the-box thinking is the magic of young people and why I love speaking to them. With young people on our side we will find ways to be beat the traffickers.
But right now, the scale of the problem is huge, and unfathomable. According to Alex Hofford of Wild Aid, 25.3 million containers enter Hong Kong seaport annually, and only 1% of these are checked. 47 million tourists from China visited Hong Kong in 2014. For many of these visitors, the main purpose of their trip is shopping for luxury goods, including ivory. Despite aggressive awareness campaigns, the trade in ivory is booming.
Legal ivory products, i.e. antiques, are supposed to be authenticated by certificates issued by CITES. Reports suggest that forging of these certificates makes it impossible for consumers to distinguish legal from illegal ivory.
I went to two ivory shops to find out for myself. Richard Leakey would not accompany me as he said it would depress him. The shelves in the shops were stacked with small and medium carvings, jewellery and cheaply made figurines. In one shop, I found carvings of African women, clearly from Africa.
The shop assistant confirmed that the sculptures were produced in Africa, and that he had imported them from London. He had a CITES certificate verifying that he imported the pieces in December 2014 and that the sculptures were pre-1920, which would make them pre-convention and perfectly legal.
I feigned deep interest in a carving made by my ancestors, and offered to buy it to take it back to London. He was aghast and warned me that I could not take it out of Hong Kong despite the ‘official’ CITES permit.
My personal assessment was that the carving was more likely from recent ivory. I suspected the same of many of the raw tusks and other carvings in his shop. These were not works of ancient art; they were not even beautiful. These were mass produced pieces including jewellery, carvings of Buddhist and Christian religious icons and, ironically, miniature elephants.
I asked if I could buy earrings or chopsticks as gifts for friends, saying that I would hide them in my suitcase and smuggle them into London. Again the trader aggressively warned me against it and said I would get caught and arrested. When I asked what the penalty would be, he said he had no idea.
The government officials we met were polite, extremely serious, and a pleasure to talk to. But we were surprised to hear that many of them knew virtually nothing about the role that Hong Kong plays in the international ivory trafficking and slaughter of elephants in Africa.
Once they understood the problem, they were keen to help. In one meeting, a Hong Kong official asked Dr Leakey: “What can we do to move the Hong Kong Government to ban ivory trade? How can we move the people to support it?” Leakey responded that it is all about changing attitudes.
When we left Kenya, we had been told that reducing the demand for ivory in China and Hong Kong would be nigh impossible due to its strong cultural roots. The culture is strong, but that does not mean it cannot change. China has abandoned many cultural beliefs and attitudes, for example towards slavery, foot binding and the rights of women. Japanese attitudes towards ivory were changed in the 1980s as the country became more integrated into the international community, and the same can happen in China.
Dr Leakey is convinced that he can help fast-track this attitude change through the voice of Brad Pitt, who will be playing him in the bio epic ‘Africa’, to be directed by Angelina Jolie and due to be released in 2016. According to Leakey, “The film can change behaviour because it shows a love affair with elephants. It will allow Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to say what needs to be said and to influence hundreds of millions of people. In buying ivory, the Chinese people may not be directly killing elephants, but by not buying ivory they can directly help to stop the killing.”
The film will also give African conservationists the opportunity to build links with the growing environmental movement in China, to create grassroots alliances that can keep up the pressure on the government once memory of the film fades. We were well received everywhere we went in Hong Kong, as were my colleagues Christopher Kiarie and Resson Kantai on their visit to mainland China last year. The most positive message from our visit is that China is open to new ideas.
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