Conservationist Zhuo Qiang urges China to ban ivory sales
Conservationist says Beijing could lead the way in conserving species, after man responsible for killing tens of thousands of elephants is arrested
After a week that saw another major haul of ivory intercepted in Hong Kong and the arrest of a man said to be responsible for killing tens of thousands of elephants for their tusks, a Chinese conservationist working in Africa has voiced optimism that China can take centre stage in efforts to conserve the species.
Zhuo Qiang, citing changing attitudes to conservation in the country, said: "There is a huge chance for it to be the main force in conservation."
The first move would be to make the sale of ivory in the country illegal, he said.
China was "more heavily implicated in the illicit trade in ivory than any other country", said a report last year by the international conservation NGO Traffic, while The New York Times reported that 70 per cent of ivory poached last year - the worst on record for elephant poaching - flowed to China.
In 2012 alone, 25,000 African elephants were illegally slaughtered for their tusks, according to Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants, a body set up as part of an international treaty regulating the legal sale of ivory from approved countries.
And while Hong Kong's Custom and Excise Department has made four big seizures of elephant ivory shipped to the city this year, a lot more is being successfully smuggled. The ivory seized in the city since 2010 is equivalent to the tusks of just 3,300 elephants.
Last week's arrest in Togo, West Africa, of shopkeeper Emile N'bouke and an associate were the latest in a series of joint operations between activists and police that have netted around 900 traffickers.
"Tonnes of ivory are leaving through the [Togo] port of Lome destined for countries like Indonesia, China and Hong Kong," Kodjo Katanga Yeleneke, of Togo's anti-smuggling brigade, said following the pair's arrest.
Paraded before the media on Friday in front of 725kg of ivory seized when he was detained following an undercover investigation, N'bouke, 58, admitted bringing ivory to Lome from Chad in North Africa. But Ofir Drori, director of a conservation network whose members went undercover to document N'bouke's illegal ivory trading, said he almost certainly sourced ivory from several countries.
"All the other traffickers were saying [N'bouke] was the boss. And he talked of being active since 1976 with connections in Asia, in the United States and Europe," Drori said.
"You're talking about more than 100 elephants just with this seizure. But this is just a fraction of what he was responsible for over four decades. You're talking about dozens of thousands of elephants."
Frank Pope, chief operating officer of the Save the Elephants charity, blames the rising number of elephant deaths on the professional tactics used by gangs. "The bullets usually start to fly at dusk, giving the poachers the maximum possible time in darkness to hack out the tusks and make their getaway," he says.
And it is no longer Africans alone who are carrying out the killing. An intelligence source at Hong Kong's Customs and Excise Department said Chinese smuggling syndicates appear to be heading to Africa themselves to direct operations.
Zhuo, 40, who is originally from Guizhou province, runs a charity, the Mara Conservation Fund, in Nairobi, which funds research and the preservation of natural habitat in Kenya's Masai Mara game reserve and works to educate Chinese people about the realities of the ivory trade.
He is believed to be the first conservationist from China to have headed to Africa to tackle the trade in endangered species. Nine years ago he left behind a wife and child and a local government job in Chongqing to devote himself to the cause.
It's not been easy. "Many people think it's impossible that Chinese people can be conservationists because we eat cat and dog meat and buy animal furs," says the man better known to the African community as Simba, a nickname he plucked from movie The Lion King that means lion in the Swahili language.
Last year he invited basketball legend Yao Ming to Africa to see the ivory trade's realities. Yao knew the images of him standing beside the bodies of mutilated elephants would catapult the issue into the public sphere.
Yao's trip "made a great deal of difference for many people", Zhuo says. Still, he said, if the trade cannot be stemmed at source, "all our efforts will fail".
Additional reporting by Reuters