Killing an elephant was easy, really. You found its tracks, big as serving platters, and you followed them. Then, Pierre said, you just aimed for the head. But in the thick rain forests of Cameroon, this seemed fantastical. There were branches, brush, slick gullied hillsides. The animal moved – often quickly. Moreover, Pierre hunted with an aged rifle he described as a caribou douze; inherited from his father, it was a weapon of indeterminate origin, and it was unlikely to be precise. What Pierre shot most likely died slowly and in great pain.

Thin and jittery and wearing a Minnesota Timberwolves jersey, Pierre was a Cameroonian contract poacher. We had agreed to meet at a seedy hotel in Bertoua, a city in the country's sparsely populated southeast and a major ivory-smuggling hub, to discuss the business of elephant poaching. A corpulent, shrewd bush-meat dealer named Madame Mado had provided an introduction, but Pierre was at first still suspicious. He stood outside the hotel door and scanned the room's interior for several moments before entering. In Cameroon, a wildlife NGO run by a former Israeli intelligence officer had begun targeting ivory traffickers, often by setting up sting operations in just such hotels.

Pierre, which is not his real name, lit a cigarette and settled into a plastic chair. He was reluctant to discuss the men hiring him to kill elephants – referring to them only as "command" – but he acknowledged they regularly placed orders for ivory. Very likely, Pierre's bosses were government officials or businessmen, perhaps even officers from l'armée camerounaise. In a poor, corrupt country like Cameroon, only a small elite could bankroll hunting expeditions in the jungle that lasted weeks and required expensive supplies – food, rifles, ammunition, cheap plastic packets of gin. "Somebody calls me, and they give me cartridges," Pierre said. "I go with porters and spend three or four weeks in the forest," searching for tracks. Sometimes he also imitated the plaintive honk of a lost calf in order to attract its mother. Pierre claimed not to shoot female elephants, but poaching has become a dark lesson in supply-demand economics. Ivory's surging price compelled poachers to kill whatever they could: cows, which grew smaller tusks than bulls, and even calves bearing only small nubs of dentin.

Pierre had been poaching for 25 years, and he had killed scores, if not hundreds, of elephants. With some pride, he claimed to have shot 23 during a single trip – so many that harvesting all their tusks had taken more than a week. "If you've killed the first one and the others have not noticed, you can kill all of them," he said. Pierre used a special machete to remove their ivory – painstaking work that required separating the tusk from the animal's upper jawbone. "If you cut it, you have destroyed it," he said. "They have to be removed right, from the inside. It takes time."

Across Africa, men like Pierre are now killing so many elephants that conservationists have begun calling the trade "industrial." Poachers are both brutal and diabolically ingenious in their craft, mowing down entire herds with cheap assault rifles, burying land mines, and even fashioning homemade shotguns from Land Rover steering columns. In Zimbabwe, poachers recently laced salt licks and watering holes with cyanide, killing hundreds of elephants. In 2011 alone, some 25,000 elephants across the continent were slaughtered – the highest recorded level of poaching since a ban on international ivory trading was implemented in 1989. In 2012, the number was perhaps as high as 50,000. Last year, the most comprehensive survey of forest elephants ever undertaken found that Central Africa's entire population had crashed by 62 percent over the past 10 years. Today poachers are killing so many elephants that they've exceeded the animals' reproductive capacity, leading some conservationists to predict that Africa's remaining 420,000 elephants could be wiped out in little more than a decade.

"There is a real risk that, if substantial action is not taken, elephants will go biologically extinct in Central Africa very soon," J. Michael Fay, a renowned conservationist who has spent decades studying the region's rain forests, recently testified before the U.S. Congress.

In late December 2011, some 100 Sudanese horseback poachers armed with AK-47s and grenade launchers crossed from Chad into Bouba N'Djida National Park in northeastern Cameroon. The raiders, possibly affiliated with Sudan's murderous Janjaweed militia, easily overran the small unit of unarmed eco-guards, then hunted with impunity for months, killing one group of elephants after another. Families were herded together, then systematically shot. Calves died alongside mothers. In some cases, gunmen waited for elephants to return to mourn their dead – and then shot them, too. By April, some 400 of the park's savanna elephants had been wiped out, the worst mass killing in modern history.

The slaughter in Bouba N'Djida is, in many ways, a signal event: The nature of modern poaching has changed. Small-time, subsistence hunters are no longer taking down the occasional elephant. Poachers have become systematic, ruthless, heavily armed. They are capable of overwhelming the porous borders and poor security plaguing many African countries. According to conservation groups, sophisticated criminal syndicates – poachers, middlemen, traders, elusive kingpins – increasingly dominate the trade. Some operations, like that of Pierre and his "command," are modest. Others move tusks by the ton. According to Tom Milliken, ivory expert for the wildlife trade-monitoring group Traffic, many trafficking gangs are "Asian-run, African-based" and now operating "in almost every country where you find elephants." Additionally, according to the UN, wildlife crime, of which ivory constitutes a significant proportion, is now a $10-billion-plus annual business – fourth behind drugs, human trafficking, and arms. This profitability has attracted not just organized crime but African militias and rebel groups: Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army – accused of carrying out mass murder – as well as Somalia's Al Qaeda–affiliated Shabaab terrorist group have been implicated in the ivory trade.

"Up north, it's war," a lieutenant with Cameroon's special forces – which recently had been deployed to fight the hunters marauding on horseback through Bouba N'Djida park – told me. "They are not simple poachers. They have GPS, Kalashnikovs, and rocket launchers. They carried the tusks with helicopters."

By late 2012, the potential loss of Africa's most charismatic megafauna – and the specter of rebel groups funding their operations with illicit ivory proceeds – had attracted the attention of Western politicians. That November, then secretary of state Hillary Clinton called wildlife trafficking a national security issue. "Trafficking relies on porous borders, corrupt officials, and strong networks of organized crime, all of which undermine our mutual security," she declared. (President Obama soon followed with an executive order committing $10 million to combat the illegal trade in wildlife.) The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) also recently unveiled an $80 million anti-ivory poaching partnership with conservation groups like the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Over three years, the project will deploy sniffer-dog teams at key ivory transit points in Africa and hire 3,000 rangers to help protect elephants at 50 sites. "The end game is getting those PIKE [proportion of illegally killed elephants] rates down and buying us some time so we can change the demand equation," says John Calvelli, WCS's executive vice president of public affairs.

The "demand equation," according to a unanimous chorus of conservation groups, is China's booming ivory market. (A smaller amount of ivory is also smuggled to Thailand and the U.S.) In Beijing and other major cities, the country's newly minted middle class now possesses sufficient disposable income to purchase ivory carvings, a luxury once reserved for only the country's wealthiest class. On websites like Alibaba, China's version of eBay, ivory trinkets trade under the title xiàngyá, Mandarin for "elephant's teeth." During a recent Christie's auction, an 18th-century ivory bowl sold for a record $842,500 – 28 times more than the appraisers' estimate – after two Chinese buyers engaged in an anonymous bidding war. China's CCTV recently reported that investors were hedging against the faltering housing market by purchasing ivory, which has become known as white gold. And, as China has increased its presence in Africa over the past decade – financing everything from stadiums to hydroelectric dams – an increasing number of its citizens are being arrested sneaking contraband ivory trinkets onto Asia-bound flights or becoming involved as buyers and middlemen in larger smuggling operations.

In October 2012, Hong Kong customs agents intercepted two cargo containers carrying more than four tons of ivory worth an estimated $3.5 million – the largest seizure in Chinese history. The next month, they seized another container with 1.4 tons. Two months after that, they seized yet another carrying 1.4 tons. All the containers had originated in Africa, and all had first passed through multiple transit countries to obscure their origin. This kind of complex routing, as well as the staggering hauls of ivory, Interpol says, strongly suggests the involvement of organized crime. The logistics required to acquire such massive quantities of elephant tusks and move them overland and across the ocean are significant – virtually corporate organizations managing an illicit global supply chain. Yet these syndicates' operations – their size, structure, modus operandi, and, above all, the identity of the kingpins controlling them – remain almost entirely unknown. At one end of the chain is a poacher like Pierre; at the other, thousands of miles away in Beijing, a consumer purchasing an ivory trinket. Everything in between remains opaque, a true black market.

One afternoon in Bertoua, I arranged to meet an ivory dealer with considerable experience in the illicit trade. It was Cameroon's independence day, and soldiers carrying assault rifles marched down the city's main street, followed by tidy formations of schoolchildren bearing signs reading non à la corruption. The dealer and I agreed to meet at a gaudy nightclub called the Grand Palace, which was deserted save for two women drinking on the second-floor balcony. Soon, a tall, dark-skinned man wearing sunglasses and a white monogrammed dress shirt sat at the table and introduced himself as Justin.

In his early thirties, Justin had been involved in the ivory trade for five years. Originally, he had studied business law – even receiving a scholarship to a university in the Netherlands – but Cameroon's job market offered few opportunities. After dabbling in other ventures, including arranging cocaine deals for some Italians, Justin got involved with a group of Chinese businessmen in Amsterdam. In 2008, they approached him about procuring elephant ivory.

"Everybody has his choice in life," Justin said blithely. "I am a dealer."

Justin described an organized operation: Several times a year, his Chinese partners placed orders for ivory. He subcontracted the work to a team of five poachers from Cameroon's Baka pygmy tribe. They were skilled enough to bring back even large tusks, he said, which were becoming increasingly rare because elephants now had little chance to grow them. "I work with specialists – they know how to hunt in the forest," Justin explained. A tribe of hunter-gatherers indigenous to the Congo Basin, the Baka had been known as legendary elephant trackers since the era of Victorian safari hunters. They were also exploitable. Recent government resettlement programs and the creation of protected, Western-NGO-backed wildlife reserves in Cameroon had forced many Baka out of the forest and into sedentary lives offering few economic opportunities – except poaching elephants.

Justin lit a cigarette and said that "his Baka" were currently in the forest filling an order. When they finished, he explained, a driver with a government truck carrying cocoa beans would smuggle the tusks to Bertoua. Justin himself then drove them to Cameroon's seaport in Douala – and, depending on the route, spent as much as $2,000 bribing guards and other officials at checkpoints. At the port in Douala, Justin handed the ivory off to a customs official who eventually loaded it onto a ship bound for China. Justin did not know, or would not tell me, what happened to the ivory once it reached his partners. "It's just gone – whatever," he said.

Such trafficking syndicates have become entrenched throughout the Congo Basin. In 2010, a team of researchers from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) interviewed poachers and smugglers across the region. They discovered that "elite" businessmen like Justin, along with corrupt government officials, police officers, and soldiers – so-called commanditaire – are driving much of the region's illicit ivory trade. They commission hunts and hire Baka trackers and local poachers. They supply food and equipment – including big-bore rifles like the Winchester .458 or AK-47s, since many hunters are too poor to afford their own guns. A constellation of locals also facilitates the trade. A bar owner uses his business to connect hunters and ivory dealers. A charcoal dealer stockpiles tusks in her shop. In one town, even a Catholic priest acts as a middleman.

To move ivory out of Cameroon's poorly guarded forests, traffickers pay transporters to paddle tusks by pirogue and corrupt police officers in official vehicles to sail through road checkpoints. Logging truck drivers shuttling between Cameroon's remote timber concessions also double as contrebandières: ferrying guns and supplies into the jungle, then stashing tusks among the felled trunks or in false door compartments on the way out. Eventually, according to IUCN's report, most of this ivory ends up in either Yaoundé, Cameroon's capital, or Douala. Some of it is purchased by local merchants, but increasingly, East Asian buyers are purchasing the bigger tusks – a reflection of China's growing presence on the continent. Today so many elephant tusks are being smuggled on Cameroon's national paved road that the local World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) office dubbed it the Ivory Highway.

The volume of such brisk trade, as well as the profits, remains unknown. One official estimated "thousands and thousands" of tusks have moved through Cameroon in recent years. Between 2004 and 2006, a Taiwanese syndicate had shipped at least 36 tons of ivory from Douala to Hong Kong – a haul equivalent to the lives of some 4,700 elephants and worth approximately $18 million on China's black market. Justin's operation is more modest, perhaps moving around a half-million-dollars' worth of ivory per year. After payouts and bribes, he clears around $25,000, a princely sum in Cameroon, where nearly half the population survives on little more than a dollar per day. He owns a house, wears nice clothes, and travels extensively in Europe. He speaks several languages and has a wife, as well as a girlfriend in the Netherlands. A born entrepreneur, he seems proud of the ruthlessly efficient supply chain that he and his Chinese partners have built: a black-market equivalent of Walmart-style "just in time" inventory that can deliver a valuable product from one place to another thousands of miles away. There are likely hundreds of similar poaching operations across Africa – collectively so efficient that they're decimating Central Africa's herds.

"What then?" I finally asked Justin. "What happens when there are no elephants left?"

"In Africa, animals are animals," he replied, chuckling. "My girlfriend, the Dutch girl, she has a dog, and it stays in the house, it stinks, it has to go for checkups. Sometimes, when we are lovemaking, the dog is there, also. I like animals – but I told my girlfriend that if this dog were in Africa, I would have used it for a nice pepper sauce."

China is only the latest in a long line of ivory-obsessed nations to plunder Africa's elephant herds. Ancient Greeks hired Ethiopian mercenaries to drop from trees to hamstring passing elephants with an axe. Roman carvers drove North Africa's herds into extinction by mass-producing ivory brooches, buttons, birdcages, book covers – even an archbishop's throne. (The emperor Caligula went so far as to build a manger of ivory for his prized horse.) Centuries later, Arab merchants established trading settlements along the continent's east coast and pushed into the interior, supplying thriving ivory markets in India and China. Then came the Europeans. The English were particularly efficient. In 1850, England imported 500 tons of ivory from East Africa. A British explorer dubbed it the "El Dorado of ivory seekers."

By 1900, buoyed by the industrial revolution, the United States became the world's greatest consumer of elephant ivory. Carving factories in Connecticut turned tusks into piano keys, billiard balls, cutlery, and combs. Ivory, according to one writer, was the plastic of the era. "It could be cut, sawed, carved, etched, ground, or worked on a lathe." By the turn of the century, an estimated 65,000 elephants were being killed each year across the continent, and the once-great herds of eastern and southern Africa had been wiped out. According to one estimate, Africa's elephant population plummeted from 27 million in the early 19th century to five million at the beginning of the 1900s.

Spurred by such losses, Europe's colonial powers soon began to set up game preserves that banned or limited hunting. In the Twenties, the British and Belgians established the first national parks. These were followed by the arrival of swashbuckling safari hunter–naturalists like Teddy Roosevelt and, later, scientists eager to classify, count, and dissect Loxodonta africana.

In 1966, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, an Oxford-educated Scottish zoologist, set up a field camp by Tanzania's Lake Manyara and spent the next four years observing 500 elephants at close quarters. At one point, a group of female elephants savagely attacked and destroyed his Land Rover. Some scientists believed Douglas-Hamilton to be reckless, but his was the first-ever rigorous study of individual elephant life and social structure – what made elephants, elephants. He watched them forage and court and raise families. Many he named by memorizing the shapes of their ears: Virgo, Boadicea, a cow named Slender Tusks.

Among the things Douglas-Hamilton and the many scientists who followed him discovered was that elephants, not unlike humans, are raised in complex, close-knit familial units. They are intensely social, communicating with one another using an elaborate sonic repertoire, much of which is inaudible to human ears. They are known to be deeply compassionate, attempting to aid stricken companions – often at grave personal risk. They are tool users and problem solvers, employing their trunks, which are strong enough to lift an industrial refrigerator but dexterous enough to pick a blade of grass, drop rocks on electric fences, or grasp sticks as flyswatters. In the Seventies, an Asian elephant at a wildlife park in Redwood City, California, reportedly learned how to pick the locks on her shackles and then proceeded to free herself along with several captive comrades.

Though a herd marches through an ecosystem like Sherman's army, knocking over trees and devouring much of what's in its path, elephants are a crucial part of the environment. They turn woodland into savanna, creating grasslands for grazing species like elands and bushbucks. Their trails create firebreaks, and their dung, rich in nutrients, regenerates the soil. Scientists have dubbed them "architects of the savanna" and "gardeners of the forest." In 2009 a biologist named Stephen Blake analyzed 855 dung piles in the Congo and discovered that elephants consumed more than 96 species of plant seeds and then deposited them as far away as 35 miles. These seeds then sprouted, became trees, and provided food and shelter for other animals. Some seeds germinate only once an elephant has ingested and deposited them on the forest floor. Some, like the fruit of the Picralima nitida tree, have shown effectiveness in treating malaria, a disease that affects much of Africa and that has shown a growing resistance to conventional drug treatment.

"An elephant-poaching pygmy friend told me years ago that if the elephants go, the forest will die," Blake told a reporter at the time. "It might not be quite as dramatic as this, but the loss of forest elephants on the functionality of central African forests might be comparable to the loss of all vehicles for the functionality of Manhattan. It would be a radically different place."

An emerging body of research has also begun to unlock the mysteries of the elephant brain, which may be as complex as our own. In 2006, scientists at the Bronx Zoo placed a large mirror in front of a female Asian elephant named Happy and watched as she regarded her reflection, then repeatedly touched an X painted above her eye – the first-ever evidence that elephants, like humans and chimps, have a capacity for self-consciousness. Iain Douglas-Hamilton also documented a series of remarkable interactions referred to in scientific nomenclature as "targeted empathetic helping." One day in 2003, Eleanor, the matriarch of a family called the First Ladies, collapsed with injuries incurred from a fall. The members of her own family were far away, but another matriarch named Grace soon appeared and used her tusks to lift Eleanor to her feet. She fell once more and Grace then continued trying to lift her for several hours, but, badly injured and unable to stand, Eleanor died the next day. Douglas-Hamilton then watched as GPS-tagged elephants began traveling toward the death site. One of Eleanor's daughters arrived and spent seven hours nearby. Another elephant touched and hovered over Eleanor's body. In the next five days, four different families visited the death site. A photograph taken by one of Douglas-Hamilton's researchers shows five elephants standing in a row facing the body, as though standing vigil.

"It was absolutely extraordinary," Douglas-Hamilton said of the experience. "Elephants have that higher-order consciousness that seems to compel them to take a great interest in those who are distressed or dead. Maybe they do mourn, whatever that means. It's very moving. And God knows I've seen a lot of elephant deaths over the past 40 years."

Early one afternoon, I took a taxi through Yaoundé's Bastos neighborhood, a posh enclave of walled embassy compounds and luxury villas overlooking the capital. Motorbikes zipped down Avenue Jean Paul II and sidewalk vendors hawked SIM cards beneath umbrellas. In the distance stood the new Chinese-funded sports complex, which resembles a silver centurion's helmet. Across Cameroon, Chinese companies are also building new highways, iron ore mines, and a 15-megawatt hydroelectric dam, and they operate the largest logging concession in the country.

Soon the taxi turned into a narrow alley that led into a dusty, open-air marché artisanal lined with ramshackle stalls. A few tourists browsed the knockoff purses and wooden tribal masks, while Muslim men in long tunics lounged on prayer rugs in the noonday sun. In Cameroon and other African countries, such markets doubled as crucial trading posts for black-market ivory – especially for Chinese expats flooding the continent to work on infrastructure projects. Some were so-called antitraffickers purchasing small quantities of ivory from local traders, then smuggling the contraband on international flights back to the mainland. In 2009, Interpol agents raided markets in six African countries and seized two tons of ivory – much of it carved into chopsticks and cigarette holders for the Asian market. (In Lagos, Nigeria, ivory vendors are starting to speak Mandarin.) According to a recent report by the wildlife trade-monitoring group Traffic, some Chinese nationals also travel to Africa and establish themselves as middlemen – "catalyzing smuggling in new areas, brokering transnational deals, and trafficking in large volumes" of ivory.

In Yaoundé's artisanal market, it took less than five minutes to find illegal ivory. A merchant in a cramped stall reached under a pile of shirts and casually pulled out a foot-long, crudely cut statue of the goddess Guanyin. "Four hundred dollars," he said. In front of another stall, a young Cameroonian man with a wispy goatee and aviator sunglasses perched atop his head introduced himself as Ahmed. After I mentioned an interest in hard-to-find objects, he lowered his voice and claimed he could procure whatever I wished: antique tribal masks – illegal to sell and export from the country – or a significant quantity of elephant ivory.

"My grandfather owns this shop," Ahmed said boastfully. "He is the king of Tika." It was a small coastal town with no such royal position, but I took the claim as shorthand: Ahmed's grandfather was a serious trader, an ivoirien. Ahmed wrote down his cellphone number, and we agreed to meet later that week. The ivory would take less than a day to transport, he said, and we could meet in a nearby hotel room.

In Cameroon, the man who knew the most about these traders' operations was a former Israeli army intelligence officer and peripatetic world traveler named Ofir Drori. In 2002, Drori – ponytailed, partial to an all-black uniform, ascetically thin – had founded an anti-wildlife-trafficking group called the Last Great Ape. He worked on a shoestring budget and, using a small, mostly volunteer army of undercover spies to conduct sting operations, had put hundreds of wildlife traffickers in prison. Significantly, he was also targeting the corrupt Cameroonian officials – cops, soldiers, judges – who truly enabled the ivory trade. "They are white-collar criminals," Drori told me. "Everyone is on the take." (He was not wrong. The Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife's "secure" stockpile of seized ivory had been looted days before in what was likely an inside job.)

The Muslim traders operating not far away, however, had proved more resilient. The stalls' merchants sold just small quantities of ivory to tourists, Drori told me, but the "big fish" operated largely out of sight. Often, they used the market as a meeting place, then arranged larger deals for expat Chinese and other buyers in a nearby, crime-ridden neighborhood called the Brickyard. The network was extremely cautious and, partly because of violence in the neighborhood, extremely hard to penetrate.

"We've done arrests, but these guys are big and really smart," said Drori. "This ring is one of the most difficult for us to eradicate – they are very tight and closed."

"Be careful," he warned, when I mentioned arranging a deal with Ahmed. Several days before, he said, ivory dealers had chased a French TV crew from the market.

Two days later, I returned to the marché artisanal. It was late afternoon, and most of the merchants sat listlessly in front of their shops, while several others played chess on a table near the entrance. I went to speak to the stall owner with the Guanyin statue, but now the mood seemed to have changed. The man was gone, and his colleague claimed the carving was now elsewhere.

"My friend have it," he said. "Not around."

As we talked, a group of men gathered by the entrance, and one of them pointed at me.

"I know who you are," one said. "I see you for the television. La caméra. Yesterday."

After my earlier visit to the market, I had attended a press conference about elephant poaching hosted by several conservation groups, including WWF. The NGO funded ranger patrols in national parks around the country and was despised by poachers and traffickers. At the press conference, broadcast on Cameroon's evening news, I had been the only Western journalist among the local reporters.

"Yes, he's the one," said another man in the stall's entrance.

A short, fat man approached my driver, Francis. "If anything happens to my brother Ahmed, I swear to God I will finish them at the airport," he said, referring to the photographer, Marco Di Lauro, and me. "Then I will finish you," he said to Francis.

I walked past the group and headed toward the dusty parking lot. Francis reversed around the prayer rugs, then drove into the narrow alley. A tall Muslim man in a white robe stood in front of the exit, which had been blocked with a thick log. We stopped and waited. Another man slowly stooped down and pulled the log out of the way, and we crept forward toward the street. As we passed, the man in the white robe leaned down to my window.

"Don't ever come here again," he warned.

More than anything, the ivory market in China resembles a black box: a device of mysterious design that consumes elephant tusks supplied by men like Ahmed and Justin at one end and at the other produces intricately carved ivory statues that eventually wind up on living room shelves in Beijing. But how this occurs and to what extent syndicates, anonymous merchants, and corrupt People's Republic officials are involved remains almost entirely unknown. (Interpol claims to be aware of how "some" syndicates operate but would not discuss details related to investigations.) Despite its own customs agents' regularly seizing cargo containers filled with thousands of elephant tusks from African countries like Kenya and Tanzania – traffickers' current entrepôt of choice – the Chinese government has thus far maintained that it does not happen at all.

"Has China's legal ivory trade caused the poaching of wild elephants? I don't think there's necessarily a connection," Yan Xun, chief engineer of China's Department of Wildlife Conservation, recently stated. "The Chinese government has been paying great attention to the protection of elephants," he added, noting that it "legally source[s] ivory through international auctions."

Shortly after leaving Cameroon, I flew to Beijing, China's largest ivory market, in order to understand what was happening to such enormous quantities of African ivory once it reached the country's shores. Driving through the city's thick smog one morning – so dense that nearby trees were obscured – I found an elegant shop called Chaoqun Xiàngyá, or "Outstanding Ivory." Scores of necklaces and statues rested neatly in glass cases, all accompanied by cups of water to prevent the material from cracking. A well-dressed Chinese woman admired a thick bracelet, then haggled with a girl behind the counter over its $800 price. A sign by the shop's door identified it as one of the many retail stores certified by the Chinese government to sell ivory. (The 1989 ban outlawed only the international trade in ivory; many countries such as China were allowed to maintain domestic markets.)

"Ivory is a property that belongs to high-standard people," the owner, a middle-aged man with sallow skin named Luo Xu, told my translator. Every year, he added, "10,000 to 12,000 elephants die naturally." The notion that ivory was harvested from elephants that had perished from natural causes – or that tusks fell from their mouths like outgrown milk teeth – was commonplace in China. Though the shop owner, a man with experience in the ivory trade, likely understood the difference between propaganda and naïveté.

Outstanding Ivory's glass cases also held elaborately carved sculptures called devil's work balls, each selling for thousands of dollars. One dazzling orb, inscribed with a swirling dragon, rested atop a thin stem of ivory. Next to it was a green ID card bearing a small picture of the carving – though the picture and the carving itself did not quite match. I looked at several other carvings, and these, too, did not match their ID cards. According to wildlife NGOs, a significant volume of illegal ivory was laundered through China's ostensibly "legal" ivory market this way. In 2007, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (cites), the regulatory body that governs the international wildlife trade, had brokered an agreement allowing the Chinese government to purchase 68 tons of elephant tusks from four African countries. The deal was highly controversial – environmentalists feared it would spur demand and fuel poaching – and so China had agreed to implement an "ivory trade control system." Only government-certified shops like Xu's could sell ivory that, theoretically, originated solely from the country's official stockpile. They also created a labeling system: Carvings more than 50 grams had to be accompanied by an official ID card with a photograph, which was transferred to customers at the point of sale. The system, however, has proved porous. In 2011, investigators from the muckraking wildlife NGO International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) posed as undercover buyers and visited 57 certified shops around the country. Sixty percent, they discovered, were laundering illicit ivory. Many, like Xu, simply kept the ID cards and used them to sell similar-looking carvings sourced from the black market.

"The labeling system clearly provides a laundering system," IFAW's campaign manager, Lisa Hua, told me at the group's office in Beijing. In May, she noted, authorities had arrested a government-licensed ivory dealer for smuggling eight tons of ivory from Africa. The London-based NGO Environmental Investigation Agency had recently estimated that up to 90 percent of ivory on China's legal market came from illegal sources. (I repeatedly contacted several Chinese officials, but none agreed to be interviewed for this story. Wan Ziming, the country's top cites representative, told my translator he had an "allergy" to Western journalists pestering him about China's ivory trade.)

One evening in Beijing, I met an ivory collector who asked me to call him Mr. He. Fast-talking and energetic, he was a documentary filmmaker in his mid-thirties – an aspirant in the country's budding artistic class. He also possessed, by his own count, 10 ivory carvings of exceptional quality. Aware of international opprobrium concerning the trade, many Chinese were now cautious about talking to journalists. But Mr. He had agreed to speak with me in an effort to explain his culture's passion for ivory, a tradition dating as far back as the 16th-century b.c.e. Shang Dynasty. If there is going to be a future for Africa's elephants, it would rest partly on curbing the consumerist whims of buyers like him.

"The first time I saw ivory, I was fascinated. It looks so smooth and bright," he told me in the film company's office, a loftlike space filled with movie posters and iMacs. "The Chinese have a tradition of playing with artwork. The texture of xiàngyá is very good for that."

Mr. He had been acquiring ivory for five years. He did not buy cheap work; scrolling through his phone, he showed me several photos of carvings – a dragon, a Buddha, a small, circular amulet that had cost more than $1,300. Its high price, he said, reflected its origin. "In China, the ivory from baby elephants is called blood ivory, which is worth more than normal ivory," he explained. Mr. He was also part of a small, secretive network of collectors. He would not introduce me to them but claimed they met regularly to buy and sell carvings among themselves. "The people I buy from are big collectors," Mr. He said. "We work within just a small circle." Much of the group's ivory, he said, was smuggled over the Burmese border, then trafficked into Beijing. One friend of his was in the People's Army and had recently used a military truck to smuggle four whole tusks into the country.

"They use the ivory to send to their political connections as a gift," he said.

On his phone, Mr. He pulled up Weibo, China's version of Twitter, to show me an online ivory sale. An anonymous seller was auctioning a necklace for about $100; prospective buyers sent their bids via private message. Next to a picture of the necklace were the letters XY, for xiàngyá. "They won't say it's ivory," Mr. He explained. "They are afraid the authority checks the keywords." As Chinese authorities had cracked down on illegal ivory shops, many traders had shifted to the easy anonymity afforded by the Internet. During its 2011 investigation, IFAW surveyed Chinese websites for one week and – despite the government's recent ban on online ivory sales – found nearly 18,000 ivory products for sale.

"I feel very sad and guilty, but sometimes, especially after seeing those fancy products, I can't help myself," Mr. He told me. "I make a way to comfort myself that if I stop buying, will that have a big influence? I'm only one person."

Among conservationists, there is a growing consensus about how best to deal with the grave threat China's vast – and growing – population of Mr. Hes poses to Africa's elephants. Many believe cites, the main international body for setting protection levels for threatened and endangered species, cannot adequately address the current scale and pace of modern poaching. Criminal syndicates are now too sophisticated, too efficient to be thwarted by a deliberative, contentious body that meets only once every three years. As if to underscore this point, poachers in Chad slaughtered 86 elephants – including 33 pregnant females – days after cites delegates failed to pass meaningful protections for Africa's dwindling herds at its triennial conference last March. ("Perhaps this convention will continue monitoring the killing until there is nothing left to monitor," one delegate darkly lamented.)

According to a recent report by Traffic, protecting Africa's elephants will require more, and better-equipped, forest rangers in Africa, as well as anti-ivory publicity campaigns in China aimed to sway consumer behavior. (During the last great poaching wave in the Eighties – then driven by markets in the U.S. and Japan – campaigns like only elephants should wear ivory helped dramatically lower demand in both countries.) The CGI's anti-poaching project plans to fund what it calls "demand reduction efforts" in consumer markets, as well as push for a moratorium on ivory sales in several countries.

"We have a long way to go to get the countries that are major consumers to do that," says John Robinson, WCS's chief conservation officer and part of the CGI initiative. "But I think countries are sensitive to the concerns of other countries, and China and Thailand do want to belong to the global commons."

Just as critically, conservation groups say ivory trafficking needs to be elevated from "the bottom rung" of crime-fighting priorities. "Low conviction rates are an epidemic in wildlife crime cases," Traffic's report concluded, "reinforcing the low-risk/high-reward incentive structure that draws poachers, middlemen, couriers, kingpins, and organized criminal enterprises to perpetuate wildlife crime." At the same time, law enforcement agencies need to treat large, international ivory-trafficking syndicates like drug cartels: turning poachers into informants, tracing financial transactions, and creating international task forces capable of gathering intelligence, seizing assets, and mounting long investigations that stretch beyond national borders. (Narcotics agents have long used the so-called controlled-delivery technique, which tracks drug-filled cargo containers in order to determine smugglers' identities and tactics.) Above all, the bosses need to be taken down. In the modern history of ivory trafficking, not a single major international kingpin has been imprisoned.

"Suppression of the ivory trade is not a pressing priority for many law enforcement agencies," says Cornelis van Duijn, coordinator for Interpol's environmental security unit. "Anti-drug efforts, for example, benefit from an abundance of resources – highly trained units, sophisticated intelligence, analysis and targeting programs, and many other resources that campaigns targeting ivory trafficking do not enjoy."

After flying from Beijing to Nanning, Guangxi's capital city, I drove three hours through lush, crenellated hills to reach China's southwestern border with Vietnam. As authorities had stepped up seizures in key coastal transit points like Guangzhou and Hong Kong, trafficking syndicates had begun using Vietnam as a back-door transit point to China. Cargo containers filled with illicit African ivory were being shipped to Haiphong, a major Vietnamese seaport, then trucked north and smuggled across the border into China's Guangxi province. Much of the region was mountainous, densely forested, and unpoliced – a smuggler's haven. And, unlike China's coastal ports, there were no X-ray machines or sniffer dogs to inspect the thousands of trucks crossing the border every day.

Puzhai, a bustling trader's town known for its mahogany trade, had recently become one of the key ivory gateways along this new frontier. Furniture shops like Dragonfly Mahogany lined the main street, and a long procession of Dongfeng trucks rumbled past, trailing plumes of grit. Chinese traders wearing shorts with black socks lounged in front of newly built hotels, smoking and peering at ledgers. I had been pointed to Dragonfly by a Beijing journalist, Yang Wanguo, who had recently gone undercover to investigate the region's ivory trade. Many of Puzhai's mahogany merchants, he found, were purchasing large quantities of ivory from traffickers in Vietnam, then smuggling the contraband over the border in truckloads of wood. Much of this ivory was likely being shipped to major cities like Beijing, then sold to black-market dealers and shopkeepers. Like so much of the murky, black-market trade, who exactly was moving ivory across the border remained unknown.

That night, I found a dingy shop selling mahogany carvings and boxes of Chinese herbs. A bored Vietnamese girl behind the counter fiddled with an iPhone, and the shop's owner, who introduced himself as Mr. Liao, had a pompadour of spiky, gelled hair and a mole on his left cheek sprouting wiry hairs. After my translator quietly mentioned that we were interested in purchasing ivory, Mr. Liao motioned us over to a set of rickety wooden steps that led to an unfinished room lit by a bare bulb. From under a cardboard box, he removed a plastic bag loaded with thick bracelets, Buddha carvings, and fistfuls of beads. Mr. Liao clicked on an LED flashlight and shone its beam through an inch-wide bracelet. The cream-colored ivory became translucent, its elegant diamond-shaped pattern illuminated in the bright light.

"It is hard to get at the moment, even small pieces. I have to ask people to go across the mountains from Vietnam," he said. In the past year, the Chinese government had begun to step up enforcement in Guangxi, raiding shops and even forming a special police unit to investigate wildlife trafficking. Large volumes of illegal ivory were still flowing over the border from Vietnam, but none of the cautious dealers in Puzhai seemed likely to divulge their source. (At one point, a mahogany trader, using his business as a front to ship ivory, asked my translator if we were working for the police.) But Mr. Liao, an enterprising businessman, offered to arrange a trip across the border to Hanoi to set up a deal with his ivory supplier – provided, of course, he received a cut.

"The people I buy from ship it in from Africa to Vietnam," he added, pointing to a hollow steer's horn, longer than a man's arm, resting on the dusty floor. "They smuggled it inside cow horns in cargo containers."

The next morning, Mr. Liao was sitting at a tea desk inside his shop, tapping at a smartphone card game called Fight the Landlord, while Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" played over the speakers. He was in an expansive mood and, while we waited to leave for Vietnam, spoke proudly of his success. The child of farmers in a remote village, he had grown up poor and received little formal education. He worked for many years as a laborer, then later sold stereo speakers. Now, he said, the shop was sufficiently profitable to allow him to build his parents a retirement house. He was a good son and an entrepreneur. "You always need to smile," he told me, "so people think you are good to get along with and like to do business with you." His story was doubtlessly common. There were likely thousands of Mr. Liaos across the country, all upwardly mobile and ambitious, trading in small bits of material from an animal so many thousands of miles distant as to fade to abstraction.

Two young, pretty Vietnamese women wearing skinny jeans walked into the shop. They were Mr. Liao's suppliers, part of the trafficking network across the border. One of them carried a gray cloth bag filled with hundreds of ivory chopsticks, necklaces, and several carved statues. These she would sell to local merchants while her companion escorted us into Vietnam. "We asked some people to go across the border with this stuff – it's not hard for locals to cross," one of the women said. "We have our staff to carve. It's a family business," she added. The other woman opened her phone and showed me a photo of a stack of raw ivory sawed into blocks. She then stretched her arms wide to indicate they also had whole elephant tusks. That these traders possessed such quantities of ivory, employed their own carvers, and were regularly supplying much of Puzhai meant that whomever they were connected to was running a large, sophisticated operation.

An hour later, we crossed the border and set out for Hanoi, passing through high, hilly farm country and rows of squared rice paddies lining the road. Soon the sun dropped, and the land flattened out in the darkness. In the distance, so many smoking brush fires burned that it looked as though the land had been shelled. The next morning, after we slept in a decrepit guesthouse, Mr. Liao met a young Vietnamese man on a motorcycle who led us down a narrow alley to a three-story compound. The man, whose name was Kyung, opened a steel gate and led us inside a workshop buzzing with activity. An elderly man and woman squatted on the ground hammering on blocks of wood. From the back, obscured by a hanging blue tarp, came the whine of an ivory-carving drill. A skinny Vietnamese man with a pinched, boyish face and a dirty shirt emerged from a side room. A younger man, hard-eyed and paunchy, appeared behind him. They did not recognize Mr. Liao, they said, and looked displeased by the presence of a Westerner.

My translator explained our purpose – speaking in Mandarin to Mr. Liao, who relayed it in broken Vietnamese. I wished to purchase ivory on behalf of a wealthy client in the U.S. The two men, seeming to relax, led us into a sitting room with a flatscreen TV and a Buddhist shrine resting atop an ornate mahogany cabinet. "I have a large number of merchandise," said the skinny man, whose name was Bian and, Liao said, was the head of the operation. "Do you want the whole tusks or sculptures?"

I followed Bian to a room on the second floor. Beside a bed was a cardboard box filled with raw elephant tusks sawed into brick-size chunks – the ones from the trader's phone – solid and heavy as oak. "We get the ivory from Africa," Bian said. "We have our own carvers here." One chunk of ivory was emblazoned with a string of numbers and the letters zm – likely indicating the tusks had been stolen from a government storeroom in Zambia. In either case, the cache of marked tusks meant the syndicate had good connections with African suppliers, as well as a web of corrupt government officials and customs agents to help them export the ivory.

Back in the sitting room downstairs, Bian had still more ivory. He opened the tall cabinet and removed a large plastic bowl brimming with ivory beads and bracelets, along with a bag stuffed with pendants, statues, and handfuls of polished ivory rounds the size of half-dollars. Then he held up what appeared to be a blackened chunk of wood. "It's rhino horn," said Mr. Liao. Bian was selling it for about $95 per gram – more than twice the current price of gold. (Africa's rhinos, like its elephants, are being poached into oblivion.)

Out front, the steel gate opened, and two Chinese men entered the sitting room. One of them, wearing a gold chain and a yellow shirt stretched over a prodigious belly, stared at me for several seconds. He then removed a digital scale from a leather purse and began weighing 10 ivory rounds from the orange bowl. After checking each one, he handed a wad of Vietnamese dong to Bian, who marked something down in a ledger from the wooden cabinet.

Bian, it seemed, was doing a brisk, gainful business supplying ivory traders in Hanoi and across the border in China. He had sold out of large ivory sculptures – "It takes time to fill orders," he said – but had four whole tusks kept in a nearby building. Fearing a Westerner would draw police attention, Bian would take only my translator to see them. After 20 minutes, she returned with photographs of two immense tusks placed tip to tip on a pink linoleum floor. Both were chipped and worn and, more than five feet long, together weighed as much as a child. The base of one bore gashes, as though it had been inexpertly cut from the animal that had grown it. The pair could be had for $60,000, Bian said.

"Don't worry about the quality or risks while delivering," the man in the yellow shirt, who was Bian's brother, told my translator. "We've got someone in charge of the delivery. Maximum, it takes two or three days. We always want to sell goods as fast as possible. We have clients coming to us every day."

"We have done this many times," Bian added. "Normally, we ship about 155 kilos every week." This was a staggering volume of ivory, which amounted to 1,300 pounds a month – or nine tons in just one year. It was the equivalent of nearly 1,200 dead elephants. It was a torrent of ivory flowing from African poachers like Pierre to the ports in Vietnam, channeled across the border to middlemen, merchants, and black-market dealers like Mr. Liao and the trader in Beijing, and then finally sold as good-luck talismans to a population flush with new possibility. It was brutally efficient commerce. It wouldn't take long to exhaust its own supply. Syndicates operating at similar capacity from Vietnam, Hong Kong, or mainland China could exterminate all of Africa's remaining elephants in less than 15 years.

"It's business," Bian said. "The elephant's entire value converges into the pair of tusks."

Bian's young daughter skipped through the room, laughing and wearing a thin ivory bracelet on her wrist. Kyung appeared with a silver bowl of red rambutan fruit. Bian's brother poured tea, but it seemed a good time to depart – the two men had begun to ask Mr. Liao how well he knew us. We shook hands, told the brothers our American buyer would soon be in touch, and headed for the metal gate. From somewhere in the back of the garage, the sound of a carving drill started.