Weaning Itself From Elephant Ivory, China Turns to Mammoths

“If we can get more, we can make more,” said Wu Xinghua, an owner of Jin Sha Mammoth, which operates five workshops and two galleries around China that produce and sell jewelry, pendants and other intricately carved figures.


Carving mammoth ivory tusks at a a workshop of Jin Sha Mammoth, on the outskirts of Beijing.

Gilles Sabrié for The New York Times

The drastic shift in the ivory market, though, is raising a host of concerns that could temper the accolades China won for its plan to phase out commercial sales. The two types of ivory can generally be told apart by their appearance — mammoth ivory is often darker on the outside — and by the pattern of crosshatching. But conservationists worry about anything that could help the elephant ivory trade, which has proved difficult to stamp out.

“As long as there is a legal trade in mammoth, ivory of all kinds can be laundered into it,” said Mark Jones, associate director for policy for the Born Free Foundation, a wildlife conservation organization based in London.

Beyond that, China’s appetite for ivory also appears to be encouraging a shadowy network of traffickers working in Russia. In April, the authorities in Heilongjiang seized a ton of mammoth ivory, including 107 tusks, that a truck driver was smuggling across the border hidden in compartments of a tractor-trailer to evade customs duties. Legal and illegal shipments are believed to flow through Hong Kong, too.

Mr. Wu travels each summer to Yakutsk, a provincial capital in Siberia, to buy ivory from a man, he said vaguely, who had connections with Russia’s military, though he clears his purchases through customs in each country.

Collecting the tusks like berries or mushrooms on the tundra is allowed in Russia – with a license – but using industrial methods to prospect for buried skeletons is not. But as a photographer from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty documented last year, piracy in Siberia appears unchecked in places, causing untold damage to the environment and washing away the possibility of scientific research that might have been done on the sites to learn more about life on earth millenniums ago.

Ivory’s place in Chinese culture and history will make the trade difficult to squelch entirely. And many here say the craftsmanship involved should be preserved. Prized as “white gold,” ivory has for centuries been…

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