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Mammoth challenge to China’s ivory ban

The legal sale of mammoth tusks may be masking illegal trades in elephant ivory

A new threat to the world’s elephant population has emerged from a long-extinct quarter: the woolly mammoth.

Today marks World Elephant Day, an international event intended to raise awareness of illegal ivory trading and the conservation of the endangered animal. But while the Asian trade in raw ivory has reportedly plummeted since the ban, poaching has not—and neither has demand.

According to a recent report in The New York Times, a thriving replacement trade in mammoth tusks, a fossil substitute to harvesting from live elephants, has fueled fears that it may be used as a cover for illegal ivory—and anyway legitimizes a product that many in China would wish to make taboo.

Some argue that the ivory trade is part of Chinese culture, and carving should be protected alongside other artisanal traditions. Animal rights activists had hoped that argument was effectively lost after the government banned all imports in 2015, followed by another ban on commercial ivory that went into effect this year.

As of April 1, all of China’s ivory factories officially ceased production, with outlets set to close by the beginning of 2018, but analysts point out that a recent fall in prices does not correspond to any drop in demand.

The mammoth tusk industry is centered in Russia’s melting Arctic tundra, and the product usually enters China via its northeast Heilongjiang province. Collecting mammoth tusks is legal in Russia (with a license), though prospecting is not, but experts say neither country have the robust legal systems or anti-smuggling capabilities necessary to tackle the growing problem.

In July, the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency reported, over the last decade, that the town of Shuidong, in Guangdong province, has replaced another criminal network operating in Fujian as “the world’s largest hub for ivory trafficking” from East and West Africa, and remains “untouched by any enforcement action in China or abroad.” One trafficker said that 80 percent of African ivory smuggled into China now goes through Shuidong.

Meanwhile, an extensive photo essay in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reveals the “gold rush” of mammoth piracy in Siberia, with vodka-fueled “tuskers” causing reckless damage to the environment and scientific research in their bid to become mammoth millionaires. Illegal excavations in the region have also unearthed another potential source of “white gold”—the woolly rhinoceros, whose raw bones can fetch around $8,000 to agents who re-sell it for the traditional medicine market in China.

Currently, much of that booming market is sustained by the trade in African rhino horn, illegal in China since 1993, but still highly coveted, as revealed by a recent investigation by the Elephant Action League.

The emerging trade in mammoth—and all the associated problems—is expected to be a growth industry, with insiders banking on the darker tusks replacing white ivory to sustain a business that’s been throwing into “upheaval” by the ban. One trader told the Times that carving was an “intangible part of [Chinese] cultural heritage”; another warned “it is not going to disappear.”


Cover image by Andy Brunner


Han Rubo is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese.

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