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China in hot seat over missing elephant ivory

China's government lost track of 121 tons of elephant ivory over a dozen years that probably were sold on illegal markets, according to a previously undisclosed Chinese report.
Image: Tusks
The Environmental Investigation Agency, a private watchdog group, says one of its investigators took this picture clandestinely in a government-run store in Dalian, China, where the elephant tusk at center was priced at $130,000. Environmental Investigation Agency
/ Source: The Associated Press

China's government lost track of 121 tons of elephant ivory over a dozen years that probably were sold on illegal markets, according to a previously undisclosed Chinese report to U.N. regulatory officials.

The "shortfall" in ivory described in the document between 1991 and 2002 — equal to the tusks from about 11,000 dead elephants — could provide fodder for representatives of a U.N. accord to reject China's attempt next week to gain permission to import more ivory.

"We have not been able to account for the shortfall through the sale of legal ivory by the selected selling sites in the country," Chinese officials reported in 2003 to the Swiss-based U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. "This suggests a large amount of illegal sale of the ivory stockpile has taken place."

The Associated Press obtained the Chinese report from the Environmental Investigation Agency, a watchdog group based in Washington and London. EIA also has compiled a briefing for nations that signed on to CITES to try to prevent China from gaining permission to trade ivory at a CITES meeting in Geneva, Switzerland next week.

Elephant ivory is a booming black market commodity, with tusks, jewelry and trinkets bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars for smugglers and sellers since it was banned globally in a 1989 U.N. accord. Since that accord, some one-time sales by African nations have been allowed on a case-by-case basis, but only Japan has been approved to buy it. China now also wants approval from other nations that signed onto CITES.

Tusk for sale: $130,000
Campaigners against the ivory trade say China is possibly the largest single Asian market for illegal African elephant tusks, but that weak law enforcement in the country means accurate figures are hard to come by.

EIA argues that China lacks control of its ivory, and allowing it to import more ivory legally will only lead to additional slaughter of elephants and greater illegal smuggling and trade for their valuable ivory tusks. An EIA investigator snapped a photo in May 2007 of one elephant tusk selling for $130,000 in a prominent display of ivory trinkets and a variety of tusks in a Chinese government-run store in the northeastern city of Dalian.

The group says more than 20,000 elephants a year are killed illegally in Africa and Asia for the ivory black market, and that Chinese nationals have been implicated in illegal ivory seizures in more than 20 African nations.

"There are just huge questions that are unanswered, and we believe the Chinese government has the responsibility to provide answers to the international community," said Allan Thornton, EIA's chairman. "The ivory trade is out of control."

China's Foreign Ministry said they had no information on the subject and the Ministry of Forestry could not be reached for comment. An employee of the China Wildlife Conservation Association, who did not give his name, said it is the government's business and not something they have information on.

Ban led to recovery
The Chinese case shows the difficulty the world faces trying to allow limited sales of ivory without encouraging more smuggling and poaching. The trade in elephant ivory far eclipses any demand for other animals' tusks.

Poached female elephant with two infants, Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania.

The 1989 U.N. accord banning trade in elephant ivory, which is administered by CITES, led to the rapid recovery of flagging elephant populations. It was left up to nations to decide what to do about their domestic markets. Monitoring of illegal trade in elephant products and illegal killing of elephants was first mandated at a CITES meeting in 1997 in Harare, Zimbabwe.

China, one of the biggest consumers of ivory, now wants permission to import more from other nations. A key factor at next week's CITES meeting will be how much control China has over its current national ivory stockpile.

In its report five years ago to CITES, Chinese environmental officials disclosed that sellers in numerous cities "have been for years dealing commercially in ivory products despite the fact that these products did not come from approved/registered sources." Those include gemstone or antique markets, government-owned stores, five-star hotels and ivory specialty stores, the document says.

Much of the ivory destined for China is carved into jewelry and ornaments bought by tourists from other parts of Asia. An unknown amount of ivory jewelry and ornaments are illegally exported to Europe, Japan, North America, Singapore and Thailand.