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With no elephants around, the Chinese keep buying ivory

Ivory is displayed before being crushed during a public event in Dongguan, south China's Guangdong province on January 6, 2014. China crushed a pile of ivory reportedly weighing over six tonnes on January 6, in a landmark event aimed at shedding its image as a global hub for the illegal trade in African elephant tusks.

One of the surest ways to create a thriving black market in something: Make it illegal.

Drugs and U.S. dollars in closed economies are good examples. Another good example is the elephant ivory market, which is booming, despite bans on international trade and crackdowns in many African countries.

Damon Tabor wrote about the illegal ivory trade from source to final sale in the current issue of Men’s Journal.  He says there is a rising demand in China and that fuels poaching in Africa.

"The demand is a function of the rising Chinese middle class," said Tabor. "You have a sizeable portion of China’s population that now has disposable income and can spend it on things like ivory trinkets and these intricately carved ivory statues."

Tabor broke down the process of how poaching works. He gave us this example from one of his sources: 

1.     Suppliers will get an order from a buyer.

2.     A supplier will then transmit the orders to the actual poachers.

3.     The poachers go out and kill the elephants.

4.     The supplier will then pick up the dead elephants and drive them somewhere for international transportation, most likely a port.

5.     The ivory may then hit a customs official, who in this case would be on the supplier’s payroll.

6.     It's shipped to buyers and traders.

 Tabor said the demand for ivory has exceeded the reproductive capacity of elephants.  Which means of course, that the animal will eventually die out.  He says for people who don’t come into direct contact with the animal, this isn’t an issue.

"With the traders and the dealers and the middlemen I spoke to in China and Vietnam, there’s not a great deal of care for an animal that is several thousand miles away," said Tabor.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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