Looking For Elephant Ivory? Try China As China grows richer, the demand is growing for elephant ivory smuggled from Africa. Despite occasional crackdowns and even prison sentences, it's not hard to find upscale Chinese shops that sell it.

Looking For Elephant Ivory? Try China

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Let's go now to China, where hunger for resources drives both demand and prices - and not just for energy and minerals. As purchasing power has exploded, more Chinese have been implicated in smuggling and selling ivory from Africa.

NPR's Frank Langfitt went on a search for ivory in China's capital.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: So I'm here right now at an antique market in the southern part of Beijing. They have these big stone lions outside. And we've gotten some tips that as many as seven - maybe many more - stores here are selling ivory. And I'm with my assistant, Yang.


LANGFITT: And we're going to go and split up, and try to talk to as many people as we can, and try to find some ivory.

(Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: (Foreign language spoken)

I browse through shops, but I'm the only foreign face here. Sellers eye me warily. No one will show me any ivory.

So we're back out here; it's about an hour later. Yang, what'd you find?

YANG: I visited nine shops, out of which four sell ivory product. I saw some necklaces, some bracelets.

LANGFITT: And was this stuff openly displayed, or was it somewhere else?

YANG: They were hidden in some boxes.

LANGFITT: The International Fund for Animal Welfare cased the same mall in November. They found more than 20 shops selling illegal ivory. Grace Gabriel is the group's Asia regional director. She grew up here in Beijing. And Gabriel says Chinese aren't just buying more ivory these days. They're also pushing up prices.

GRACE GABRIEL: We really didn't anticipate the price that we are seeing today. In raw elephant tusk price, we have seen it tripled in the past year.

LANGFITT: From as little as $270 a pound to more than $900 a pound. Ivory has long been a status symbol in China. But Gabriel says rising incomes are driving even greater demand. With China's housing market in decline and the stock market a crapshoot, the nation's super-rich are looking for other places invest their cash.

GABRIEL: A lot of them now are looking at collectibles and artifacts, particularly of things that they see as holding value.

LANGFITT: Gabriel says illegal ivory sales are rampant online. She taps her computer keyboard and goes to Baidu, China's giant search engine.

GABRIEL: If I put in xiangya - it means elephant ivory - this whole forum, every listing; it's got hundreds of pages, and every single one has ivory on them.

LANGFITT: Most ivory here comes from Africa. Authorities around the world seized more than 500 smuggled tusks last year. Among the seizures was one in August in Hong Kong, where customs found nearly 800 pieces of elephant tusk.

Kenyan TV reported a similar bust in November.


LANGFITT: Esmond Martin is a world expert in the ivory trade. When I met him last year at his home in Nairobi, he said Chinese workers living in Africa are also driving demand. Many come to the continent to build roads, and help China extract oil and minerals. As far back as 2005, Martin found them buying ivory in Northern Sudan.

ESMOND MARTIN: The ivory was moving up to Khartoum, and 75 percent of the buyers were Chinese.

LANGFITT: What were they buying?

MARTIN: Chinese type of things, which are chopsticks and name seals. Plus, they like small animals, like hippos - figurines of hippos. I actually photographed them buying some of these items.

LANGFITT: Steve Trent says China knows there's a problem and is trying to do something about it. Trent is co-founder of WildAid, a global conservation group.

STEVE TRENT: They are making seizures at airports like Beijing and Shanghai, where much the ivory is now coming in and entering the marketplace.

LANGFITT: But Trent says China's government, which refused to talk to NPR about this story, needs to do more. And group's like his have to convince Chinese people to stop buying ivory.

WildAid has targeted thousands of Shanghai and Beijing taxis with ads like this.


LANGFITT: Yao Ming, the former Houston Rockets basketball star, leaps up and blocks a bullet fired at an elephant.


LANGFITT: That's Chinese for when the buying stops, then the killing will, too.

There are signs these awareness efforts are having an impact. At another Beijing antique market, where smuggled ivory is also sold, Huang Xiaofei is browsing for furniture with a friend. Huang is a 26 years old, a massage therapist from rural Central China.

HUANG XIAOFEI: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: When I was young, he tells me, I didn't know anything of elephant ivory. I lived in the countryside.

But as Huang grew up, he saw things that got him thinking.

HUANG: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: From documentaries and Discovery Channel, l learned about elephants, he says. They're beautiful, graceful, and very protective of their families. Seeing elephants killed really hurts me emotionally. Now, Huang says, it seems like such a waste to kill these extraordinary creatures for their tusks.

A key to protecting elephants, going forward, is to get more people in China to start thinking the same way.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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