A Sky News special investigation has shown how China is driving demand for smuggled ivory from Africa, leading to a surge in the slaughter of endangered elephants.
An undercover Sky film crew made contact with a man in Beijing who revealed his family runs an international ivory trafficking operation.
At a meeting set up in a five-star hotel, he showed off three pairs of recently arrived tusks with a price tag of £40,000.
Asked if he could supply more, he replied: “Don’t worry about that. If we can do a deal today, then next time I have some good ivory I’ll call you.”
He explained his uncle works in West Africa and uses contacts to smuggle the tusks into China in their luggage.
Despite a worldwide ban on the sale of ivory, environmental groups say there has been a surge in the slaughter of elephants in Africa.
The animals are gunned down by poachers before having their tusks sawn off.
There is evidence that the carnage is being driven by demand from the Far East and, in particular, by China’s new found wealth.
An investigation carried out by the Environmental Investigation Agency in 2010 found a booming underground trade in Zambia, where African traders have learned the Chinese word for ivory – xiangya.
One dealer – identifying himself only as Stephen – described how he had sold three tonnes of ivory to a Chinese government delegation.
He said: “There was no problem because, at that time, it was a matter of just going to the airport and putting on their plane. They went safely.”
Customs officials in Hong Kong last year found 384 tusks packed inside a container shipped from Tanzania and labelled “dried anchovies”.
Meanwhile, in Congo’s Lubumbashi Airport, three Chinese nationals were discovered carrying six suitcases packed full of tusks.
Experts say the busts reveal only a tiny portion of a growing illicit trade. But, once the ivory makes its way into China, it is virtually impossible to trace, thanks to a legal loophole.
In China’s high-end ivory showrooms, elegant carvings sell for as much as £200,000.
Often taking several months to complete, they are highly prized by China’s new rich as status symbols.
All the dealers are accredited with the government and the ornaments come with a certificate issued by China’s State Forestry Administration.
The certification process is supposed to guarantee that all the ivory on sale comes from a special, one-off deal done by China in 2008, when the country was permitted to buy several thousand tusks confiscated and stockpiled by African governments.
However, Sky News can reveal that China’s legal ivory trade serves as a front for the trade in trafficked tusks.
Filming secretly at one government accredited workshop, the manager said her business would only carve ivory that came with a certificate.
However, when she left the room, one of her workers explained that he also carved illegal tusks, even showing off chunks of smuggled ivory.
Lisa Hua from the International Fund for Animal Welfare said China’s legal ivory trade only serves to encourage poachers and smugglers.
“As long as there’s a legal trade, the illegal ivory will find its way into the market,” she said.
“And that will directly threaten the survival of endangered elephants in the wild.”
IFAW and other animal protection groups are calling for the Chinese authorities to implement a total ban on the sale of ivory.