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Chinese Officials Continue Illegal Ivory Trade During Trip to Africa

Nov 06, 2014 01:32 PM EST

Despite promises to stamp out the illegal ivory trade in China, officials accompanying President Xi Jinping during a trip to Tanzania went on an ivory buying spree, according to a report released Thursday, perpetuating the ongoing elephant poaching running rampant throughout Africa.

China is the world's largest importer of smuggled tusks and Tanzania is the largest source of poached ivory, according to the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) behind the report.

While the non-profit group and other conservationists claim that the demand for ivory in China is soaring and fueling the illegal trade, Chinese delegates insist they are opposed to poaching.

"The report is false and we are displeased with it," Hong Lei, spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told The Associated Press (AP).

"I don't think there's hard evidence, and I have not seen such cases," added Meng Xianlin, director general of the Endangered Species Import and Export Management Office of China, who said he has never heard of Chinese delegations' involvement in the ivory trade. "Allegations without evidence are not believable, and I don't think it is appropriate for (EIA) to come up with this mess." (Scroll to read on...)

But, despite refutes, the EIA insists that Jinping's entourage of government officials and businesspeople used the president's 2013 visit to Tanzania as a chance to acquire illegal ivory. Weeks beforehand, Chinese buyers began purchasing huge quantities of ivory, which supposedly was sent back to China in diplomatic bags. The trip was so successful that local prices reportedly doubled to about $318 a pound.

"This business involves rich people and politicians who have formed a very sophisticated network," Tanzania politician Khamis Kagasheki said in a statement.

The Last Animals

Tanzania's elephant population has suffered from poaching more so than any other African country, according to the report, with 10,000 killed in 2013 alone - an average of nearly 30 animals a day. Even in the country's famous Selous Reserve elephant populations have plunged 67 percent in just four years.

The African elephant is the largest animal walking the Earth, and can be found roaming throughout 37 countries in Africa, National Geographic says. And when there were once millions of them, there are now only an estimated 300,000 worldwide. They are easily recognized by their large ears, long trunks and impressive tusks, which they use to dig for food and water and strip bark from trees.

Unfortunately for these iconic mammals, their tusks are prized by people in China who see them as a status symbol. The carving industry profits greatly by turning ivory into ornate jewelry, trinkets and religious sculptures for wealthy collectors, The New York Times reports. (Scroll to read on...)

Some in China turn a blind eye to elephant poaching, while others, according to BBC News, don't realize that you have to kill an elephant to get its tusks and falsely believe that they can re-grow them.

The ivory trade was banned in 1989 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). But it has since surged when the agency then permitted Beijing to buy 62 tons of African ivory in 2008 as a way to keep the carving industry alive - what was supposed to be a one-time deal. Now, international conservationists contend that Beijing in claiming ignorance to China's major role in the illegal ivory trade.

The Black Market

According to the new report, entitled "Vanishing Point: Criminality, Corruption and the Devastation of Tanzania's Elephants," some Chinese Embassy staff have been hauling in ivory as far back as 2006.

It said that in December 2013, one dealer boasted of having sold $50,000 worth of ivory to Chinese navy personnel on an official visit in Tanzania's port city of Dar es Salaam. Yu Bo, a Chinese national, was reportedly detained at the time while attempting to deliver 81 elephant tusks to two Chinese naval officers who were part of the visiting crew - that's ivory from about 40 elephants. Yu was subsequently jailed for 20 years in the country, after being unable to pay a $5.6 million fine.

Earlier, in November 2013, three Chinese nationals were arrested after Tanzanian authorities raided a house in Dar es Salaam, where 706 ivory tusks were found.

Of course, in speaking with The Times, Xianlin denied such involvement, calling the EIA report "highly irresponsible," for "spreading rumors and damaging China's image without any evidence."

If the ivory trade persists, African elephants may not even last until the end of the decade.

The EIA and animal rights advocates are calling for complete bans on ivory - not just illegal ivory - in China. At least in the United States, officials have started to take a stand against elephant poaching when New Jersey and then New York enacted stricter bans on ivory products.

"The ivory trade must be disrupted at all levels of criminality," EIA Executive Director Mary Rice said in the statement, "the entire prosecution chain needs to be systemically restructured, corruption rooted out and all stakeholders, including communities exploited by the criminal syndicates and those on the front lines of enforcement, given unequivocal support."

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