Connect to share and comment

Illegal ivory trade thrives in Africa

International wildlife groups try to stop slaughter of elephants. Chinese blamed for upsurge in ivory sales.

Ivory bracelets, necklaces and chopsticks seized by the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority during a raid of the Merkato, a market in central Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Yeneneh Teka/Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority/GlobalPost)

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The curio hawkers at the Merkato, a sprawling market in Addis Ababa, knew enough to keep their ivory souvenirs under the counter. But when a potential customer showed up, they hauled them out in brown paper bags: ivory chopsticks, bundled in pairs, as well as solid ivory bangles, necklaces made of ivory beads and other illicit trinkets.

“You can tell it’s real because of the lines,” one vendor boasted, pointing to a wave-like pattern in the ivory.

The chopsticks, tailor-made for the many Chinese working in Ethiopia, sold at the Merkato for 280 birr a pair, or $22. Buy five pairs and the price would drop to 220 birr, or $17, a pair. "But can we take them to China?" asked a visitor. "No problem," assured the vendor, who said they were a hot seller.

The killing of Africa’s elephants for their ivory tusks is an old problem that has escalated in recent years as China forges growing links with Africa. The Chinese who have come to the continent in skyrocketing numbers — as workers, entrepreneurs and tourists — are said to be fuelling the illegal trade.

Wildlife advocacy groups are launching a new campaign to educate Chinese in Africa about ivory and the penalties they could face for illegally bringing it back to China, but they want the Chinese government to step up its efforts to fight a problem that has grown dramatically in the last decade.

In early 2010, TRAFFIC, the global wildlife monitoring network, will start distributing leaflets about ivory to Chinese tourists heading to Africa. About 100,000 leaflets will be given to travel agencies in major Chinese cities. Tourist groups will receive a pre-departure briefing informing them that it is illegal to carry or send back to China any ivory products from Africa.

Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC’s east and southern Africa program director, says he is pleased by the campaign, which is in partnership with the China National Tourism Administration and the U.N.-backed Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) management authority in China. But he says that leaflets are only a small step and the Chinese government must do more.

“It’s just so clear that the Chinese are so involved in this kind of illicit trade and there’s nothing out there in languages that they’re speaking and readily understand here in Africa to make them sit back and reassess what they’re doing,” Milliken said.

“I think many people see it as an avenue to get rich quick and are not at all aware of the serious legal ramifications they face if they are caught back home,” said Milliken.