Hiding in Plain Sight

In San Francisco’s Chinatown, and online, ivory carvings are easy to buy.

After an elephant is shot and killed somewhere in Africa, after the tusks are chainsawed off of its face, after the ivory is smuggled through Indian Ocean ports, then crafted in a Hong Kong studio, to be smuggled once more across the Pacific and then secreted past US border inspections – after all of that, some of the world’s illegally trafficked ivory ends up among the curio shops of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

photo of a decorated Chinatown street
detail of a detailed ivory carving of a garden scene
photo of a street sign in Roman and Chinese characters
close-up photo of two ivory-carved figurines
photo Quinn Dombrowski, Thomas Hawk, Erich Ferdinand


When many people hear about the underground global ivory trade, no doubt they imagine the poached ivory being sold in Shanghai craft shops or the markets of Bangkok or Manila. But the United States has its own, very large ivory black market. According to some estimates, the US is the world’s second largest, ranking behind only China. It’s a trade worth millions of dollars – and closing down the US market, many wildlife advocates say, will be key to stopping the elephant poaching crisis in Africa.

In some ways, Grant Avenue, the tourist trap at the center of San Francisco’s Chinatown, would seem an unlikely place for a flourishing black market. The street has a certain Disney-esque vibe, the red paper lanterns and pagoda roofs and the old guys busking with their erhu fiddles creating just the kind of effect a visitor from Iowa or Italy might expect. Most of the shops on Grant (Bargain Bazaar, Far East Flea Market) specialize in the sort of vacation tchotchkes that are quickly forgotten upon returning home: Alcatraz Island t-shirts, plastic figurines, and play-fighting swords. These aren’t the kind of stores that sell luxury items worth hundreds, or thousands, of dollars.

But on a spring visit to Grant Avenue I had little problem finding ivory for sale, mostly at the handful of shops that specialize in high-end antiques. At one antique dealer not far the Chinatown Gate, I saw two-inch-by-two-inch carved ivory figurines in a locked glass case selling for between $1,000 and $1,500. Down the street, another shop was selling delicately carved ivory boxes and beautiful Buddha statues. “No Pictures Allowed,” read a sign on the case.

Grant Avenue is also home to a several “fine arts” dealers that seem completely out of place in Chinatown – sprawling shops packed with faux Art Deco furniture, blown glass chandeliers, marble statues, and cases full of ivory carvings. The proprietors at these places (there are three or four of them, all with nearly the exact same inventory) aren’t Chinese, but instead are burly white guys with brusque manners and accents that sound either Russian or Israeli. “They’re a real mafia,” wildlife trade investigator Daniel Stiles later wrote me, confirming my suspicions. At one such shop, I asked to handle a couple of wonderfully wrought ivory figurines, one of a heron, the other a pair of owls. The carvings were pure white, with none of the patina of age, and they had a satisfying heft that reminded me of antler. I asked whether the carvings were “real ivory,” and the store’s manager – a guy with an open collared shirt revealing a thick, gold-chain necklace – assured me that it was “mammoth ivory,” obtained from an ancient tusk recovered out of the Siberian permafrost. As he told me this he pulled strongly on his e-cigarette, the tip glowing neon blue with his drag.

The only ivory vendor on Grant Avenue that seems legitimate is a family owned shop called Wai Hing. The manager there, David (who asked that I withhold his last name), is an easy-going fellow who was open about his business practices. He told me: “I just want people to know that everything I sell, it’s the last,” by which he meant ivory from before the 1989 international ban. “Everything that’s illegal, it has nothing to do with me.” Most of the ivory pieces there did appear to be antiques; an amazingly miniature nature scene inside a carved globe was so exacting in its detail that it clearly came from another age, an era of greater craftsmanship. Every case in the shop prominently displayed an ivory import permit number from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

And yet, Wai Hing also had several displays of smaller, contemporary figurines carved from what David says were hippo tusks or mammoth. (There is, in fact, a vibrant, lucrative, and legal trade in ivory scavenged from Pleistocene-era mammoth bones, which can provide a cover for those involved in the African ivory trade.) Wildlife investigators say it’s these newly carved items – all of which are compliant with US law – that allow ivory traders to launder illegal ivory into the legal market. According to a 2014 report that Stiles prepared for the Natural Resources Defense Council, as much as 90 percent of the ivory for sale at stores in Los Angeles and up to 80 percent of the ivory in San Francisco is likely illegal.

Wai Hing manager David disputed the accuracy of that investigation, and expressed frustration with the report’s lawyerly conditionals – its many usages of “could be” and “likely.” “The conclusion is not right,” David insisted.

But the very presence of all of those iterations of “could be” illustrates a larger point: When buying ivory, it’s all but impossible to know for certain whether or not it came from an elephant killed in 1975 or one killed in 2015. As the NRDC put it in a follow-up article to its investigation, to buy ivory in the US without violating federal or state laws would require having “a lawyer, a scientist, and an art historian at your side.”

US law prohibits the importation of raw ivory or ivory carvings from elephants that were killed after the 1989 global ban went into effect, severely restricts interstate trade ivory, and requires sellers to have a permit confirming that the ivory entered the US before 1989. But enforcing those rules is another matter. Federal law enforcement officials say they simply do not have enough resources to locate and prosecute ivory smugglers.

“I have about the same number of agents that I had in the 1970s,” says Edward Grace, the deputy assistant director for law enforcement at the US Fish and Wildlife Service. “I have only about 300 agents to cover the whole United States.”

Grace emphasized to me that, in recent years, federal law enforcement has made some significant dents in the ivory trade, which he called “a Fish and Wildlife Service priority, because of the poaching crisis in Africa.” The USFWS racked up a major success in 2011, when it busted a Philadelphia ivory dealer, Victor Gordon, for illegally smuggling tons of ivory through New York’s JFK Airport. In February 2014, the Obama administration issued a new National Strategy on Wildlife Trafficking that put in place even tighter restrictions on ivory sales and shipments. The new strategy also calls for closer cooperation with overseas wildlife agencies. Grace said the USFWS now has an agent stationed in Bangkok, one in Botswana, and one in the Tanzanian port city of Dar es Salaam. But even as law enforcement becomes more sophisticated, so, too, have the international criminal networks.

The United States is among the largest ivory markets in the world.

“In the seventies and eighties, wildlife trafficking was more a crime of opportunity,” Grace said. “Over the last eight or ten years it has become more of an international crime. It’s become involved with different organized criminal gangs.… We can continue to arrest the people smuggling ivory, the couriers, but, like in the drug trade, they are expendable. We can continue to arrest them, but it doesn’t solve the problem. We try to go after who’s funding the operation, but it takes a longer period of time to work up that chain.”

Grace (who, for the record, disputes that the US is the second largest ivory market, though he acknowledges that the US is the second biggest market for all illegal wildlife, including rare birds and fishes) also expressed frustration at how much of the ivory trade has moved online, and is therefore much harder to track. “Now I need to have agents who can do long-term surveillance, who can go through company documents and records. We have to seize computers now, and we need to have agents who can take evidence off computers.”

In early May, I did a cursory search on eBay for “ivory carvings.” I got more than 4,000 results, ranging from imitation ivory figurines selling for $20 to whole-tusk carvings going for $5,500. A similar search on Craigslist revealed an ivory bead necklace for sale as well as figurines from India. The Craigslist ads insisted the ivory was “pre ban,” but of course without a certificate it would be impossible to tell.

Craigslist has an explicit policy prohibiting the sale of ivory items; eBay has worked closely with law enforcement to reduce wildlife trafficking on its site. The persistence of ivory items for sale on those platforms shows how difficult it is to stamp out the market. Cutting off the ivory market is like squeezing a balloon: Push on one side, and it just inflates on the other.

In order to eliminate all opportunities for ivory sale, wildlife advocates are now focused on passing state laws that prohibit any and all ivory sales. (Advocates aren’t putting much effort into passing a federal ban because of the unsympathetic atmosphere on Capitol Hill.) Last year the legislatures in New Jersey and New York, which had previously been the top US ivory market, both passed near-total prohibitions on ivory sales in their states. (There are exceptions for objects more than 100 years old and antique musical instruments containing ivory.) Ten other state legislatures – including California, the number two US market – have introduced laws that would ban ivory sales. Seven more states are considering taking action.

According to John Calvelli, who directs the 96 Elephants Campaign at the Wildlife Conservation Society, the New York and New Jersey bans are already working. “There’s one section on 58th Street [in Manhattan] where there were two stores selling ivory, selling to the tourist market,” he told me, “and I went there last week and all of the ivory was taken out of the windows. So it’s a real change.”

Calvelli and other elephant advocates recognize, however, that changing the laws won’t necessarily staunch the demand. In a February op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Peter Knights of the conservation group WildAid, wrote: “I’m an economist by training, and I can tell you … that trying to restrict supply without restricting demand is likely only to drive up prices.… We will once and for all protect … threatened wildlife only through hearts and minds, not through bullets and handcuffs.” Or, as Calvelli explained it to me, “Can we move the needle on demand? We have to educate people: If you want to buy a luxury item, buy something else.”

During my recent visits to San Francisco’s Chinatown, I witnessed both the determined efforts and the difficulties of moving that demand needle. Walking down Stockton Street – the grimier, less touristy section of Chinatown – I was passed by a MUNI bus displaying a giant public education poster from WildAid. The ad featured the Chinese actress Li Bingbing with her arms crossed in front of her in the universal symbol for Stop, and beside her, in English and Chinese: “96 Elephants Die Every Day for their Ivory … Make CA Ivory-Free.”

I then circled back around to Grant Avenue, and on my way out of Chinatown again passed one of the fine art dealers that display ivory in their window. A small crowd of tourists was pressed up against the glass, pointing at a massive, four-foot-long tusk that had been carved into an intricate, classic Chinese pastoral tableau. The tourists were all ooohing and aaahing. It was as if they had never seen anything so beautiful in their lives.

Clarification/Correction: This story has been modified since its original posting. The story originally reported, “Advocates have given up on trying for a complete federal ban because of the unsympathetic atmosphere on Capitol Hill.” Advocates point out the state bans are not “complete” since they allow exceptions for musical instruments containing ivory. They also say they continue to lobby for new federal restrictions on ivory imports. The sentence now reads, “Advocates aren’t putting much effort into passing a federal ban because of the unsympathetic atmosphere on Capitol Hill.”

Jason Mark is editor of Earth Island Journal. His new book, Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man, will be published in September.

Subscribe Now

For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.