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Chinese Feed Illegal Ivory Trade

CAIRO, Feb 4 2012 (IPS) - The illegal trade in ivory continues in Egypt, with ivory products sold openly in local tourist markets by traders who operate with impunity, a new study by the conservation group Traffic has found.

The report, published in the group’s journal, suggests that while the volume of elephant ivory seen in Egyptian tourist markets has declined over the past decade, the country remains a major hub in the global ivory trade. Investigators who surveyed two of the country’s main tourist centres found ivory craftsmen and vendors operating with little risk of arrest.

“Egypt is one of the largest illegal markets for elephant ivory in Africa,” the study noted. “Tusks are smuggled in, mostly through Sudan, and sold to ivory workshops in Cairo…(where they are) openly carved and displayed without any prosecution ensuing.”

Trade in ivory was banned in 1990. An Egyptian ministerial decree issued in 1999 makes it illegal to import, export, or possess ivory products, or to offer them for sale.

“The trade in ivory (in Egypt) is completely illegal without a permit, which has never been given,” said endangered wildlife consultant Esmond Martin, the lead author of the report. “Unfortunately, there is absolutely no law enforcement.”

While customs officers have occasionally seized elephant tusks at Cairo airport, there have been no documented confiscations of ivory items from retail outlets since 2003. The last spot inspection of Cairo’s main tourist bazaar, carried out in 2010, reportedly turned up only legal camel bone items, leading the study’s authors to suspect “market surveillance is not spontaneous.”

Posing as tourists, two Traffic researchers counted more than 8,000 ivory items openly for sale in Cairo’s bazaars, hotel souvenir shops and other tourist outlets. Nearly 1,000 more ivory items were seen in the southern Egyptian tourist city of Luxor.

The survey, conducted in March and April 2011, only counted ivory products on display. The authors did not include ivory items that traders showed to them if they had been concealed from view when they entered the shop.

“We saw many more ivory items in drawers, at the back of shops, and in people’s homes,” Martin told IPS. “In keeping with the methodology of earlier studies, and to allow comparison of the data sets, we did not include these items in the count.”

The most common ivory products seen in Cairo were animal and human figurines, jewellery, and carved scarab beetles. Local craftsmen working with elephant tusks of Central African origin were also found producing ivory walking sticks, chopsticks, and hieroglyphic name seals known as cartouches.

“Traders, usually Sudanese, bring their ivory directly to workshops and retail outlets and sell according to the weight and quality of the tusks,” the report said.

It added that large tusks could fetch over 360 dollars per kilogramme, while damaged tusks and fragments were selling for about 150 dollars per kilogramme. Retail prices ranged from about 20 dollars for a simple ring to over 15,000 dollars for a one-metre carved ivory barge.

Earlier Traffic studies, completed in 1998 and 2005, found the biggest buyers of ivory in Egypt were Europeans, particularly Italian and Spanish tourists. Western visitors continue to buy, but the latest study revealed a new consumer with growing spending power and a strong taste for carved elephant tusks: the Chinese.

“In 2005, the Chinese were hardly buying any ivory. Now they account for over half of all sales,” said Martin.

The number of Chinese tourists and expatriates in Egypt has grown significantly in the past decade as the two countries increase commercial ties and air links. In 2001, there were only about 100 Chinese expatriates in Egypt. By some estimates, there are now over 60,000 Chinese expatriates and 100,000 tourists a year.

Ivory traders told researchers that Chinese expatriates and tourists were their principal buyers. One vendor said groups of Chinese buyers would often spend 50,000 dollars on ivory during a single bargaining session.

According to Martin, lax enforcement and the influx of heavyweight buyers is reversing gains made against Egypt’s illegal ivory trade in the early 2000s and fuelling the poaching of Africa’s elephants. Tourism was down at least a third in 2011 due to political instability associated with the uprising that led to the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak last February.

“We can only expect the volume of ivory traded to increase as tourist numbers go up,” Martin said.

The Traffic report offered a number of recommendations aimed at curtailing the ivory trade in Egypt. It urged local authorities to increase public awareness of the illegal ivory trade and to prosecute those engaged in it. The authors also noted that Egyptian law enforcement officers received extensive training in 2010 to help them identify elephant ivory.

“It is time these newly learned skills were employed to confiscate raw and worked ivory, in order to bring this flagrant trade to an end,” they said.

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