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  • Aug 30, 2014
  • Updated: 10:52pm
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CRIME

China's insatiable demand for ivory funds terrorism in Africa and Middle East

China's appetite for 'white gold' funnels millions to violent militants

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 July, 2014, 5:13am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 July, 2014, 8:48am

The insatiable Chinese demand for ivory is fuelling violence and bloodshed across Africa and the Middle East, with militant groups such as al-Shabab and the notorious Lord's Resistance Army using the "white gold" as a key source of funding.

The involvement of such groups in the illegal ivory trade has politicians and activists increasingly viewing the issue as a threat to national security, not just animal preservation.

A report published by the United Nations Environment Programme last week found the Lord's Resistance Army made between US$4 million and US$12 million every year from trafficking ivory.

Joseph Kony, the group's warlord leader, has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court and is being hunted in Uganda.

The report follows a speech by former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton last year in which she highlighted how militant groups including al-Shabab "fund their terrorist activities to a great extent from ivory trafficking".

Ivory, most of which ends up on the market in Hong Kong and the mainland, provides these terrorist groups with hundreds of thousands of dollars that are used to finance militant activities, said Andrea Crosta, executive director of the Elephant Action League and a former security and intelligence consultant.

"People must realise that behind a simple ivory trinket lies a long chain of blood and criminality," said Crosta, who participated in an 18-month undercover investigation into the syndicates behind the illegal trade.

"I was offered ivory, weapons and even uranium. Ivory buyers need to understand the kind of people who engage in the trade," said the Italian conservationist.

China is the world's largest consumer market for ivory and many of the shipments transit in Hong Kong before being moved to the mainland. Estimates of the amount of illegal ivory destined for the Chinese market range from 60 to 90 per cent of the total supply leaving Africa.

Based on seizures, Crosta believes the actual figure is close to 80 per cent. Earlier this year Operation Cobra II, an Interpol-led international crackdown on wildlife crime, found that 200 out of the 350 cases investigated involved China.

The price of ivory in China has tripled to US$2,100 per kilogram over the past four years, making the increasingly scarce tusks a lucrative source of revenue for terrorist and militant groups.

One of the most organised of these groups is al-Shabab, a Somalia-based cell of al-Qaeda.

With an estimated strength of between 4,000 and 6,000 militants, the group is responsible for a host of killings, including the assassination of a Somali lawmaker on Thursday and the deaths of 67 people in an attack on a Nairobi shopping mall in September.

Unlike the Lord's Resistance Army and the janjaweed militia in Sudan - both of which actively hunt and kill elephants for their tusks - al-Shabab positions itself as a middleman and a buyer.

After receiving an order, al-Shabab will trigger its network of contacts in Kenya and Somalia to obtain a consignment, then use its smuggling expertise to move the ivory onto ships in Mombasa or Dar-es-Salaam, Crosta said.

"In Africa, al-Shabab is considered a good buyer - it pays well, pays on time and there are no jokes. Usually they arrange pick-ups in the middle of nowhere and move the ivory quickly offshore in skiffs, like with drugs," Crosta said.

They have the capacity to buy between one and three tonnes of ivory every month and make huge profits that they then use to buy weapons, he added.

The issue will likely feature on the agenda when nations meet this week at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Geneva.

Also up for discussion is the possibility of implementing a decision-making mechanism (DMM) that would provide pro-trade countries such as China and a number of African countries an avenue to legally buy and sell ivory.

"The DMM is a disaster waiting to happen to the last remaining African elephant populations," said WildAid campaigner Alex Hofford. "It has been proven, time and again, that the legal ivory trade provides a cover for the illegal ivory trade."

In 1999 and 2008, China was granted one-time legal purchases of ivory consignments overseen by an official state body. However, campaigners say ivory dealers are laundering illegal smuggled ivory into the much smaller legal market.

"The fundamental issue is that the abuse of the legal market is key," said Environmental Investigation Agency executive director Mary Rice, who will be at this week's meetings in Geneva.

"China's position has been very strong in reducing demand for illegal ivory, but it still encourages legal ivory," said Rice.

An official on the Chinese delegation to CITES did not respond to inquiries.

The discussion has never been more critical, with African elephants facing extinction within a decade.

"The illegal wildlife trade is a serious criminal industry worth more than £6 billion (HK$80 billion) each year. While threatening the future existence of a whole species, it devastates already vulnerable communities, drives corruption and undermines efforts to cut poverty," said Martin Walley, International Wildlife Trade Campaign coordinator at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Ivory seizures in Hong Kong reached an all-time high of 8,041kg last year, up 43 per cent from 2012 and 300 per cent from 2003, according to figures from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department.

A spokesman for the customs department said it would maintain close contact with overseas and mainland enforcement agencies to prevent smuggling, but said there was "no evidence" Hong Kong had become a transit point for the ivory trade.

Follow Bryan on Twitter @bryanhimself

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This article is now closed to comments

53c2ba8d-bb90-4bdb-a5f9-52b50a3209cb
Why are the poachers there? Because there is still the big demand for ivory in China. And why does this demand exist? Because China is still having their ivory carving factories very busy. And most busy with ILLEGAL ivory! China must shut down their ivory carving factories, this is one of the most important points to help elephants to survive.
Buying ivory is like buying a bullet (Yao Ming said that.)
53c2329c-3128-4bd5-96ce-08d30a3209ca
Ivory belongs on Elephants! What stupid human wants some part of a dead animal as a trinket.
53c22d21-b880-45b4-9659-08e30a3209ca
How many carving factories does China have? Why are they still open? I don't give a damn about lost jobs of carvers. Their time is over. The world is a different place. China wants to be part of the 21st century then prove it! Stop indulging in trinkets that are killing elephants. One every fifteen minutes. Educate Chinese citizens that their chopsticks come from DEAD elephants. I'm sick to death and heartbroken every time I see a picture of an elephant with its face hacked off. The time is NOW!
53c1ba7e-128c-46e8-a92a-52be0a3209cb
****news.discovery.com/human/genetics/animals-consciousness-mammals-birds-octopus-120824.htm
tory.braden
Let's not skirt the issue with all the bad things the poachers are doing. Poaching would not continue if it were not for China's home grown appetite for all things ivory. It's China's carvers who create that demand by buying up and carving the poached tusks.
Start putting Zhao Shucong in the spotlight, he licenses those carving factories, the bile farms, the bone wine and more, He can close those factories to ivory, retool them and have China's "lucky" statues and chop sticks cast in resin (good enough to fool anyone it is Not ivory).
Just as in the 80s when Japan was the responsible culprit and it took responsibility, the poaching stopped because there was nowhere for the poached tusks to go. The same now with China. It's carvers and carving factories must stop buying tusks. #ChinaStopCarving.
david.chambers.14855
Don't worry, it's going to end soon with extinction. It's too bad China can't send container ship loads of tranquilizer dart guns over to Africa. Maybe then the poachers wont kill the beasts.
53bdb833-b2c8-4478-b8f0-08dd0a3209ca
There would not be jobs for poaching, the poachers would not be payed if China would stop the dishing out of carved items! Chinese carving factories buy the bloody ivory to begin with.
A Kuro
The demand for ivory is not just a Chinese problem, a lot of races including the Anglos and Japanese also fuel the trade in illegal ivory. Recently the government of China have burned tons of illegal ivory. So saying China's insatiable demand for ivory funds terrorism in Africa and Middle East is stretching the truth a huge way. As can be seen from the Syrian civil war, the recent establishment of the Islamic State spanning Syria and Iraq, most funds for terrorism in Africa and Middle East have their source from the West especially the US plus the Gulf States. And with the 50 Billion illegal narcotics business in the US, the whole of South America finds itself flush with billions of US dollars for terrorism and crime. To put things in perspective one can say American insatiable demand for illegal drugs funds terrorism in the whole world including Africa, Asia and Middle East and especially in the Latin American countries where drug violence and terrorism is an epidemic.
BabyMan
Yeah and Hong Kong is a transit point for drugs and there is now a huge problem here. Also China grows drugs for trade in secret. So get your facts straight
ramsay
We need to move past this racism already. "But you did this" and now "we do that" does not help the elephants one iota. Mistakes made or crimes committed in the past are no excuse to continue to make the same mistakes or commit the same crimes now.
What these elephants suffer to supply China's ivory market is horrendous. We hear about calves left to starve and tusks chopped from the faces of still-living animals. I don't believe for one second that knowing these facts, "the Chinese" still demand their ivory. This goes beyond simple greed into the realm of inhumane cruelty and a wanton disregard for the environment. Yet this i who gets the blame.
Apparently 1.3 billion people don't care about animal suffering. I beg to differ.
I believe that the issues are complex and we need to move beyond the schoolyard point scoring of who is to blame to "what can we do?".
The story of the African elephant is hardly making headlines in luxury magazines that feed exactly the kind of market that would buy ivory. Prince Harry and David Beckham are not exactly heroes to folks in Shanghai.
With all the money being thrown at this problem - from the Clintons to Britain's royalty - why is the message not getting across? What is the void that needs to be filled and how can we as responsible Hongkongers fill that void?

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