The Ivory Highway
Credit: Photograph by Andy Mahr

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.)