We've seen a lot of discussion of the news media coverage of the new report by the Environmental Investigation Agency of the criminal ivory smuggling racket and its claims of Chinese diplomatic involvement in this criminal activity. Anthropology Professor Stephanie Rupp at the City University of New York is an expert on these issues, and a China-Africa hand. I asked her if she would give us a guest post for the blog.In the wake of recent claims regarding officials from the Chinese government’s involvement in ivory smuggling, the impact and demand of China for elephant ivory has once again come to the fore. A recent report released by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) catalogues the impact of Chinese criminal syndicates and Tanzanian corruption in the ivory trade. This report dovetails with other research indicating that Tanzania – and the ports of Dar and Zanzibar – provides a significant point of exit for ivory aggregated by means of networks that criss-cross the continent. It is important to emphasize that the ivory trade is a complex network that spans multiple nations in both Africa and Asia, a point that is indicated, but not emphasized in the EIA Report.
In the Congo River basin, where my research is focused, elephants have been aggressively targeted with a marked surge over the past decade. Indeed just this week 256 elephant tusks were confiscated in southern Cameroon. When I returned to my research site in southeastern Cameroon on the border with the Republic of Congo in the summer of 2014, the price of ivory in had increased tenfold over the past decade, from $40/kilo to $400/kilo. The urgency of the situation for elephant populations throughout the continent is clear: elephants in both forest and savannah contexts are under severe pressures from poaching.
On the Asian side, Thailand is the second-leading destination of African ivory after China. When I went to Thai markets to look for ivory during the summer of 2013, it was apparent that Thai markets are awash in ivory. Most of it appears to be “new stock,” ivory harvested after the 1989 CITES ban on international ivory trade. The CITES ban prohibits the trade of ivory across international boundaries, but not within particular nations – such as Thailand, India, or Zimbabwe, for example – that host elephant populations. Given the state of deterioration of the Thai national elephant herds, the relatively paucity of ivory on Asian elephants (only males produce tusks), and the proliferation of ivory networks throughout both African and Asian nations, new stocks of ivory in Thai – and other Asian markets – are likely to be from Africa.
Numerous governments – the US, France, the Philippines,and China -- have staged the very high-profile destruction of ivory. For the most part, these public performances of ivory destruction are media events designed to signal the state's official line in cracking down on ivory poaching. While these events signal important official recognition of the issues of ivory markets, such events are primarily public performances that may well allow trade in ivory to continue.
The issue of direct government involvement in the specific visit by the Chinese delegation in 2013 needs additional – and rigorous – substantiation. Evidence for involvement by Chinese government in exporting ivory through this official delegation comes from Tanzanian carvers who supplied carvings (ebony, ivory, or both) to the delegation.While particular relationships between international “officials,” business people, or travelers and particular artisans would not seem unusual, such specific ethnographic comments require substantiation.
Moreover, the idea of “Chinese” pressures on African elephant populations has to be much more carefully disaggregated: participants in contemporary ivory networks hail from multiple nations in addition to China. Even in EIA report highlights the involvement of actors in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Thailand. Though the primary destination, China is not the only end-market for ivory.
The plight of elephants today is a result of many centuries of human exploitation of these animals for their ivory. The last surge of demand (only one of many) spiked about a century ago, when consumers were the nouveau riche of the Gilded Age in North America. At the end of the 19th century, approximately 95% of all ivory leaving Africa left through Zanzibar, bound for New England ports and ultimately for elite markets in cities such as New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston. Piano keys, billiard balls, hair combs, handles on knives and revolvers: elite commodities drove the hunting of the largest “tuskers” in East central, and southern Africa a century ago, with detrimental affects on the population size and genetic pool of elephants that remained in the 20th century. Today's pressures on elephants, driven again by a surge of consumption of elite commodities by another nouveau riche – this time in Asia – needs to be seen in the context of this larger global history.
Taking a larger historical view helps us see that contemporary ivory networks rest on cultural values and historically deep pathways that are multiregional and multicultural, and should not devolve into “China-bashing.” This perspective allows us to break through the facile dichotomies such as “China-Africa” and “Chinese traditional vs. Western liberal values” to appreciate the global complexities of cross-cultural appreciation for ivory, and the long-term multifaceted pressures that this appetite for ivory exerts on elephants.
--- Dr. Stephanie Rupp