The appetites of newly wealthy Chinese for ostentatious luxuries are fuelling elephant poaching across Africa. At Vanity Fair, Alex Shoumatoff writes that in the illegal ivory trade, “all roads lead to Guangzhou”:
In 2008, post-election ethnic violence followed by the global recession halved tourism to Kenya, making the wildlife in the parks even harder to protect. Then, in 2009, one of the worst droughts in living memory hit much of the country. More than 400 elephants in Amboseli died. The Maasai lost many of their cows and are still struggling, while the price of ivory is higher than ever, so increasing numbers of them are risking the misfortune that killing an elephant could bring on their families, according to their traditional thinking, and are getting into poaching. There are brokers just across the Tanzania border who are paying cash—around $20 a pound—for raw ivory and selling it to the Chinese. Or perhaps there is a series of transactions, a series of middlemen, but ultimately what is not being picked up by the Kenya Wildlife Service’s sniffing dogs at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, in Nairobi, is making its way by all kinds of circuitous routes to China, where raw ivory is now fetching $700 or more a pound. Ninety percent of the passengers who are being arrested for possession of ivory at Jomo Kenyatta are Chinese nationals, and half the poaching in Kenya is happening within 20 miles of one of the five massive Chinese road-building projects in various stages of completion ….
During the great elephanticide of the 1970s and 1980s, Africa’s elephant population was cut from an estimated 1.3 million to some 600,000, and Kenya’s elephant population went from 120,000 to 15,000. (It is now about twice that.) At the height of the slaughter, it is believed, 70,000 elephants a year were being killed continent-wide. The death toll may be half that now, but there are only half as many elephants left.
The previous slaughter was driven by Japan’s economic boom. This new crisis is driven by China’s nouveaux riches, or bao fa hu (the “suddenly wealthy”), who are as numerous as the entire population of Japan. The main consumers are middle-aged men who have just made it into the middle class and are eager to flaunt their ability to make expensive discretionary purchases. Beautiful ivory carvings are traditional symbols of wealth and status.