It is well known that China is the world’s number-one destination for illegal ivory. As the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has observed, the gains brought by the International Ivory Trade Ban have been significantly undermined in recent years by loopholes, one-off sales, and – most significantly – a rapidly expanding market in China as newly rich buyers seek consumable symbols of their status in society. While Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign has had some positive results in the area of animal welfare, such as dramatically reducing the sale of shark fins, a new report from the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency presents a disturbing picture of how the illegal ivory trade is being propped up by corruption at the highest levels of the Chinese government. As reported recently by the New York Times, during Xi Jinping’s March 2013 state visit to Tanzania members of his delegation “procure so much illegal ivory that local prices doubled to $70,000 per kilogram, or about $31,800 per pound. In fact, two weeks before Mr. Xi arrived, Chinese buyers went on a shopping spree for illegal ivory, purchasing thousands of pounds of poached tusks, which were ‘later sent to China in diplomatic bags on the presidential plane.'”
“Your president, he was here,” said Suleiman Mochiwa, a Tanzanian ivory smuggler, referring to Mr. Xi in hidden camera footage provided by the organization. “When he was here, many kilos go out on his plane with the escort. They buy from us.”
At a time when the Chinese government is trying to prove itself a responsible state actor that is serious about rooting out corruption and abiding by international law, the organization’s report describes a devastating environmental cost of China’s geopolitical rise: Chinese diplomats and military personnel, it says, are colluding with corrupt Tanzanian officials and Chinese-led crime syndicates that send huge amounts of illegal ivory to China, reducing Tanzania’s elephant population by half.
This is not to say that important gains aren’t being made in China to raise awareness about the link between purchasing ivory and threatening the extinction of elephants. The IFAW has, in particular, made significant inroads in its public media campaign to stigmatize the ivory trade. IFAW found, in a 2007 survey, that 70% of Chinese respondents did not know that ivory comes from dead elephants! Most believed, apparently, that ivory could be ‘harvested’ and regrown, like a plant. Messages like the one below have saturated Chinese media with positive results.
Another effective ad uses the Chinese characters for elephant, tiger, and bear, but extracts the ‘tooth’ from the elephant, the ‘bone’ from the tiger, and the ‘gall bladder’ from the bear, leaving bloody splotches in the characters where these parts used to be. A final character, ‘person’, is missing a leg, suggesting that to trade in animal parts is to loose some of our own humanity.