Smuggled ivory handicrafts intercepted by customs authorities in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, are shown during an exhibition. Photo: CFP
Li Dongbao (a pseudonym), 33, has been collecting ivory decorations and accessories for six years.
But last August things changed, after he saw subway posters depicting an elephant and its baby, which revealed how the ivory trade would tear them apart. He found himself feeling guilty and couldn't stop thinking about the graphic images and messages.
He's now considering whether or not to give up his hobby.
"I got information about these products from a collector's forum, htchi.com, and then contacted the sellers directly. The deals were conducted using an online platform because the country strictly controls trade involving ivory. In addition to ivory and hornbill beaks, tiger bones are also popular despite being illegal," Li was quoted by the Beijing Times as saying.
On htchi.com, most of the deals involve cultural relics or paintings.
The forum moderators clearly state that trade involving endangered species is forbidden in China and is banned from the forum. It also states that those involved will be punished.
However, visitors can still simply use the website forum to find ivory sellers.
Li's experience is one example of the already established online black market for ivory, which has slowly moved beyond traditional sales channels and distribution methods.
Black and white market
Hua Ning, a project director with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) China office, told the Global Times that ivory products account for around 70 percent of the wild animal trade based on the information acquired from distribution rings.
"Most of the ivory comes from Africa. IFAW has taken note of the profit chain in China as many enthusiasts have tried to purchase wild animals or products made from these animals over the Internet," Hua added.
As China strengthened its crackdown on the illegal ivory trade and implemented new regulations demanding strict sales permits, the illegal ivory business migrated online.
Collector websites and forums became the major channels for finding potential buyers.
"It's hard to track these sellers down on the Internet. They use aliases and frequently change accounts. You try to shut one website down, and they pop up in another," Hua said.
"They move between locations and deliver their goods through a web of courier services, which, due to the enormous number of parcels transferred between cities each day, has become extremely difficult to detect in advance," he added.
The Internet has become the largest black market for the wild animal trade. The killing, the smuggling, the manufacturing and the selling from Africa to China are all elements of the entire illegal profit chain that benefits those hidden behind the scenes, Hua added.
In 1981, China joined the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Fauna and Flora, which strictly forbids any commercial sales of endangered species.
China prohibits the trade of animals under CITES' appendices I and II. Elephants are included in appendix I.
"Ivory products have long been at the top of the customs' crackdown list," an official with the policy and regulation division of the General Administration of Customs, who requested anonymity, told the Global Times, adding that ivory products generally require a very long waiting period before being permitted into the country.
However, the official said there is a certain level of flexibility in enforcing the regulations in different customs districts around the country.
"In some areas where smuggling has traditionally been rampant, like coastal areas in the southeastern part of the country, officials are doing more due diligence."
According to China's criminal law, people smuggling endangered species should be punished with prison sentences of five to 10 years, as well as hefty fines. Severe offenders can be punished with sentences of more than 10 years.
Governments across the world launch sporadic campaigns to crack down on the illegal trade in ivory, and typically focus on intercepting the products at borders.
Legally transporting ivory products into the country for private collections can be a tortuous process.
"My husband once bought an ivory name card case for 6,000 yuan ($965.4) from a Switzerland-based auction house, which was unfortunately intercepted by local customs officials during its delivery by a global courier company," Li Dong, a Shanghai-based office worker, told the Global Times.
"We were told that the product would be held unless we presented an import certificate from the State Forestry Bureau to prove the ivory product was solely for a private collection instead of trading," she said.
"It took us another two months to secure it, during which period the overdue fine for customs clearance accumulated day by day. We ended up paying another 6,000 yuan to get the product back," Li complained to the Global Times.
"A local customs official even said we could just walk away with one condition: leaving the ivory product behind," she grumbled.
According to data from the IFAW, around 25,000 elephants were killed in 2011 and the total number of elephants has dropped to approximately 500,000.
To make hunting them easier and to draw less attention from rangers, poachers tend to kill the elephants before they cut off their tusks.
In Africa, the number of elephants has been declining, in part due to the demand for ivory in many parts of Asia including China.
Hua believes that besides cracking down on the illegal animal trade, the government should focus more on changing the urge among many members of the public to buy these products and make inspections routine.
"It's cruel to kill an animal to acquire its tusks. There are other things people can collect. Taking ivory items and the heads of helmeted hornbills is unnecessary," said Hua, who told the Global Times Wednesday that he feared that as long as the demand exists, there will be no effective way to stop the killing.
Bai Tiantian and Li Xiang contributed to this story