The Ivory Highway
Credit: Photograph by Andy Mahr

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.