In Guangzhou there are markets that specialize in wild-animal meat like snakes and rats, and there’s a special cat market. You pick the cat you want to eat, then they kill it and sell you the meat. There’s a saying that the southern Chinese will eat anything with legs except a table, and anything with wings except a plane. I’ve been hearing that this is also now a problem with the Chinese in Africa—and not only those from the South—who are eating domestic dogs and cats, baboons, painted dogs, and leopard tortoises and making soup from the marrow of lower leg bones of giraffes and from lion bones. Grace Ge Gabriel, Crystal’s boss in Beijing, laments, “Chinese society today is ruled by one principle only: Make Money for Me. On the way to make riches for oneself, there is no concern for anything, including other people and the environment, let alone animals. Unfortunately, the south-Chinese practice of ‘eating everything in sight’ is adopted by a lot more people now. And the Chinese have the ability to travel all over the world now. Especially in countries where law and order are not well established, these Chinese feel that they can get away with eating anything and everything.”
“Another problem,” Crystal explains, “is that the Chinese word for ivory is elephant’s teeth— xiang ya. We did a survey. Seventy percent thought tusks can fall out and be collected by traders and grow back, that getting ivory did not mean the elephant is killed, and more than 80 percent would reject ivory products and not buy any more if they knew elephants were being killed, so it’s ignorance.”
But the same survey found reluctance to comply with the ivory-control system and a desire for “affordable” ivory. Fourteen and a half percent of those polled were already ivory consumers, and 76 percent were willing to break the law to buy ivory at a cheaper price.
Liwan District, Guangzhou
The next morning Crystal and I go to a jade store in the Liwan District to see if there are any ivory hanko. Hanko are the signature seals that documents in China and Japan are traditionally stamped with. The seals in Japan are round; in China they are square. Japanese tourists fly to Hong Kong or Shanghai for the weekend, where ivory is cheaper, and pick up a cylinder of ivory and take it back to a Japanese hanko shop that will then carve their seal. There are plenty of perfectly good substitutes, like ox bone or wood, but ivory hanko have cachet. It’s like owning a Mont Blanc pen.
The salesman tells us there is strict government control of ivory. “We can’t sell ivory publicly, but”—his voice lowers—“I have a friend who can do it. How many hanko you want?”
We continue to the Hualin Street wholesale jade market, which has all kinds of beautiful stuff, not only jade. Contraband wildlife artifacts are openly displayed. One stall has hawksbill-turtle-shell eyeglass frames and combs. In another the man shows us two ivory bangles, a tiny abacus, a little Buddha, and a small tusk carved with a cabbage-leaf motif. He has his own factory in Fujian Province. The ivory comes from Africa by ship to a port near Taiwan. With a little coaxing he brings out the big stuff, wrapped in plastic: a two-foot-long tusk with the cabbage-leaf design for 28,000 yuan (a little more than $4,000).
“Do they have to kill the elephant?,” I ask him.
“No,” he says. “After you get the ivory, teeth grow again, just like human teeth.”
In the morning I say good-bye to Crystal. “You will see many changes in your lifetime,” I tell her. “China will have taken over the world, and maybe there will be no more elephants.”
“I will never let that happen,” she promises me.
I sit down with Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who has probably done more for Africa’s elephants than anybody. A pioneer in the study of elephant behavior and the founder of Save the Elephants, Douglas-Hamilton is at his computer in his home office, watching his 23 radio-collared elephants move in and around Samburu National Park, 200 miles north. Samburu, like Amboseli, is a threatened piece of paradisal Africa. There’s also a Chinese road-building project nearby, and with a mushrooming, cash-starved local population, poaching is on the rise.
Save the Elephants is headquartered at Samburu, and Douglas-Hamilton knows most of its 900 elephants there intimately. Signals from the collared ones are being beamed to a local cell-phone transmission tower, and he is monitoring their movements by satellite. A month later, the slowly streaking red line on his screen, which is tracking one of Samburu’s beloved matriarchs, Resilience, of the Virtues group, will suddenly stop. He alerts K.W.S., whose rangers rush to the scene and find Resilience gunned down by a spray of bullets. The Virtues have almost been wiped out. The Hope and Enthusiasm groups are gone, and four of the seven collared elephants on Mount Kenya have been lost this year as well.
Douglas-Hamilton, now 68, has been studying elephants in Africa since 1965. He has just returned from China. “We went to listen and learn,” he tells me in his posh British accent. (His father was a Scottish lord.) “I’m quite optimistic that a long-term relationship can be established. We were taken to see their few hundred elephants by some people who cared deeply about them. And they are coming to Samburu to experience the delight of ours. If the Chinese treated Africa’s elephants as nicely as they treat their own, there wouldn’t be this problem.”
Douglas-Hamilton tells me about an important initiative by WildAid, which is using Chinese celebrities, like N.B.A. star Yao Ming and Jackie Chan, to get out the message. I call Peter Knights, the outfit’s director, in San Francisco. “It’s a combination of new money and old ideas,” he tells me, “a huge bubble we’re trying to burst.” Funding conservation at the consumer end is not as easy as it is for fieldwork with the animals, but the Chinese government has been very supportive. CCTV, the state-owned television station, and a whole range of other outlets have donated media time and aired everything from 15- to 30-second public-service announcements to five-minute shorts to half-hour documentaries.
“The younger generation gets it,” Knights continues. “It’s the aging new wealthy, who have tremendous purchasing power and see acquiring ivory as part of holding on to their historic Chinese-ness, who have to be reached—before there’s no more ivory left to buy.”
But China isn’t the only problem. The organizations and African government authorities that are supposed to be monitoring and controlling the poaching and the ivory trade are underfunded, under-manned, lacking, their many critics say, in transparency and proper outside peer review, and, in some cases, compromised by hidden agendas. Dr. Richard Leakey, who thought up and pushed through the famous bonfire of Kenya’s old-stock ivory in 1989 and became the newly reconstituted and motivated K.W.S.’s first director (at which post he survived three attempts on his life, including a suspicious plane crash that cost him both his legs), told me—he was the only critic to go on the record—“CITES is now anachronistic and a sham. It’s funded and controlled by the ivory trade—and should be put away. The very concept of trade in high-value wildlife species as a tool for conservation is completely untenable.” A man deeply involved in elephant poaching and smuggling interdiction compared CITES to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission: “It was created to become a regulator, and became a facilitator, and the victim is not millions of people, but nature.”
Traffic, which compiles the ivory-seizure figures, is, curiously, also in favor of “sustainable trade.” Only one person, Thomas Milliken in Harare, Zimbabwe, the head of Traffic’s African operation, is supposed to be on top of all the seizures continent-wide. The reviews on Milliken, whose reports are presented as faits accomplis, are very mixed.
No one I talked to accused MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants), an arm of CITES, of being compromised, but I spent two hours discussing its work with its director, Julian Blanc, in Nairobi, and came away with the conclusion, which I am not alone in having, that its figures do not begin to reflect what is actually happening. MIKE’s numbers are based on whatever figures the government authorities give it, and the government figures are often low, because their wildlife people want to look like they’re doing a good job or because some of their rangers and top officials may be involved in the poaching themselves or because they don’t have the information. The entries for some countries in the tallies Blanc provided me with were blank. And if MIKE or Traffic questions the numbers the governments give them, they aren’t going to get anything, so they have to go along with them. Outsiders who ask too many questions or accuse the politicos in their host country of malfeasance run the risk of being thrown out, or even, as in Dian Fossey’s case, killed. MIKE funds a lot of important basic research and provides logistical and financial support to elephant surveys in Asia and Africa. Traffic just put out a hard-hitting report on the persistent ivory trade in Japan, and Milliken’s work can be excellent, so it’s not a black-and-white situation. Douglas-Hamilton, who is trying to make these institutions work—because without them there would be nothing at all—cautions against “throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Traffic and MIKE are the only ones who are making every attempt to get the correct figures.”