The Chinese Government has delivered on a promise to ban the ivory trade by starting to close some of the 34 licensed carving factories and 130 retailers.
The move is seen by many, including some conservationists, as a game-changer in saving the African elephants. But others said the move would have little impact because the Government was powerless to stop the booming underground ivory trade.
Beijing Ivory Carving Factory is one of the companies that will close in the coming months. It is one of the most prestigious ivory carving centres in China and in its day it supplied the finest to the last emperors.
Pieces, ranging from entire carved tusks to smaller intricate figures, can take months, even years, to complete.
Master ivory carver Luan Yanjun is deeply saddened by the ban.
“I’ve been doing this job for years and I don’t want to see this tradition disappear. Its part of our culture,” he said. He believes his work honours the elephant.
“It’s made as a piece of artwork and it continues the life of an elephant. It’s exquisite and it prolongs its life,” he said.
In the showroom, general manager Xiao Guangyi keeps some of the finest and most valuable works dating back 500 years. He says it was unfair his company had been targeted.
He said the company acted within the law and every piece he sold was registered, with a picture of the item, and a legal certificate that declared the ivory did not come from poachers.
“China has an extremely tight control on ivory products,” he said.
“We have a collection certificate for every product and it will record the material we are using. No other country has this strict control.”
Closing the legal market in China will not stop the slaughter of African elephants — demand is being fuelled by China’s rising middle classes and ivory is still seen as the ultimate status symbol.
About 90 per cent of all the ivory trade happens underground, illegally and online.
It is not hard to find illegal ivory. In the antique centres of Beijing, unregistered dealers operate in the open and there are no certificates.
One vendor told 7.30 there was no need for them.
Andrea Crosta, conservationist and executive director of the Elephant Action League and lead investigator in its 2015 undercover investigation of the illegal ivory market, said China was by far the biggest destination for illegal ivory.
“All the traders we meet confirmed there is much more illegal than legal in China,” he said.
“Our assessment is that there is at least 1,000 tons of illegal ivory in China right now, hidden, stockpiled by traders, carvers and investors.”
Using secret cameras and posing as wealthy buyers from Taiwan, the Elephant Action League targeted one of the biggest offenders — Beijing Mammoth Art.
It has five shops in Beijing and runs a string of companies around the world.
On camera, the boss tells them how Hong Kong is used to bring in poached ivory from Africa and how officials are bribed to get the right paperwork.
“We just imported around 900 kilograms from Hong Kong, you have to have the documents form the Ministry of Forestry,” he said.
“Documents are hard to get, and you can’t get it done if you do not know the right people.”
He then showed the investigators his computer records of the fake documents, and told them it was easy to get because they have a company in Hong Kong.
“These are from Hong Kong, these are the documents we got,” he said.
He goes on to say the false documents allow him to sell the poached ivory as legal produce in mainland China.
The boss showed the undercover investigators three rooms full of raw ivory tusks.
About 50 tusks can be seen but the boss said it was just a fraction of what he had to offer.
He told the investigator Beijing Mammoth Art also runs a trophy-hunting business in Africa as another way to secure poached ivory.
The Chinese Government has not responded to the allegations of corruption and bribery arising from the investigation, but said one senior official from the company had been removed.
When 7:30 went down to Panjiayuan Antique complex in Beijing, it found Beijing Mammoth Art still selling ivory in two of its stores.
Ms Crosta said the problem would not be fixed until the Government rooted out corruption in its own ranks.
“There is systematic, endemic corruption,” he said.
“For example, we found out some of the legal traders in ivory in their companies, as part of the companies, had government officials that could facilitate many things.”
Online sales ‘quite rampant’
The other great threat to the survival of the elephant is that most of the illegal trade in China is now done online.
It is simple to buy but much more difficult to police.
Buyers go to one of the major antique websites, then put in code words for ivory-like blood materials, African materials, African plastic or XY and then hundreds of ivory products, from chopsticks, bangles, carved tusks and Buddha statues appear.
For actual sales, you are usually directed to agents on Chinese social media site WeChat, and there are hundreds of them.
7.30 was in contact with one vendor for about a month, posing as customer.
Every day she released hundreds of photos of new products on her site.
The vendor even offered tiger bones and tiger wine, which were banned back in 1993 but seemingly still doing a thriving trade.
The customer buys online using the WeChat account and a courier is organised to drop it to your home.
It is a lucrative business and buyers can easily evade capture by closing down and setting up new accounts and sites.
Under Chinese law what they are doing is cybercrime but Chinese authorities do not have the resources or will to control it.
‘China doesn’t care about elephants’
The World Wide Fund for Nature, in collaboration with animal welfare group Traffic, are the only groups in China trying to understand the nature of the illegal online trade.
Zhou Fei, director of China’s Traffic Office said the authorities were not confronting the issue.
“Their capacity is quite limited, wildlife crime is not on their top list. These online sales are quite rampant,” he said.
Conservationists like Ms Crosta said the ban on the legal ivory was only a first step and a massive education program is needed.
“China doesn’t care about elephants, it’s not in their culture yet,” he said.
“The ban is not out of care, it’s just a reaction to international pressure from governments and, behind the scenes, from Prince William and the Obama administration.”
If the African elephants are to have a future, conservationists say, the illegal markets in China have to be shut down immediately.
Each year 30,000 elephants are being poached, faster than they can reproduce, and in some parts of Africa they are already near extinction.