The Ivory Highway
Credit: Photograph by Andy Mahr

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."