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.
At a CITES meeting in 2007, when China was vying for the right to legally import ivory, it pledged to send a mission to Chinese communities in Africa to warn them against smuggling ivory. But so far, the mission has not taken place, although Chinese authorities have arrested some Chinese for smuggling ivory. Many caught bringing back ivory from Africa claim they were unaware that it was illegal.
“I have a distinct feeling that they're trying to step away from this commitment and it's very unclear whether they are still committed to this mission,” Milliken said.
According to the most recent report compiled by TRAFFIC from the Elephant Trade Information System, a monitoring system under CITES, Chinese smuggling cases have involved more than 41 tons of ivory, with 85 percent of these cases occurring in the last 10 years. “China remains the most important contemporary player in the illicit trade in ivory,” the report said.
The cases range from small-scale (tourists buying chopsticks) to larger cases of crime syndicates or workers who come to Africa for other business but use the opportunity to acquire ivory and ship it back to China. “You’ve got all this unfolding at different scales and in different ways but collectively it adds up to a really pernicious ivory trade,” Milliken said.
In Ethiopia, authorities recently cracked down on ivory souvenirs at the Merkato in a major sweep of 115 shops. More than 100 police officers along with staff from the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority seized 420 pounds of ivory, including raw ivory, bracelets, necklaces, chopsticks and ornamental carvings, according to a report issued by the EWCA. Shop owners found with ivory were quickly tried and sentenced to fines ranging from 5,000 to 9,000 birr ($394 to $709).
In late November, an operation involving Interpol alongside wildlife authorities and police in six African countries led to the seizure of more than 3,800 pounds of illegal elephant ivory. Three Chinese, three Tanzanians and 59 Kenyans were arrested.
China has reacted defensively. China Daily, a state-owned newspaper, denied allegations by the director of a Kenyan wildlife NGO, who blamed the growing number of Chinese workers in Africa for the rise in elephant poaching in Kenya.
The Chinese embassy in Nairobi issued a statement earlier this year emphasizing that its country’s laws strictly prohibit the smuggling of ivory, and “the Chinese government has engaged in a wide range of educational campaigns.”
"The Chinese government requests its citizens in Africa to abide strictly by the local laws and regulations, and not engage in any trade or transportation of ivory or its products,” the statement said.
However it also claimed ignorance for tourists caught with ivory at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi in an incident last year.
"They bought ivory products like bangles and necklaces from certain African countries as souvenirs that are available openly in the local market,” the statement said. “Many of them are first-time tourists to Africa, and are not familiar with international practices on ivory. They are actually distinct from the smugglers we normally talk about. Anyway, they violated the Kenyan law out of ignorance and they have learned their lesson."