(Photo: Robert Caputo/Getty Images)

China’s Wealthy Are Banking on Extinction

The country’s elite hopes to profit by investing in illegal wildlife products in anticipation that they will be worth more if the animals are exterminated.
Mar 24, 2015
John R. Platt covers the environment, technology, philanthropy, and more for Scientific American, Conservation, Lion, and other publications.

Right now, in warehouses scattered across China, the carcasses of hundreds of dead tigers sit steeping in vats in a mixture of rice wine and herbs.

In weeks, months, or even years, the resulting tiger-bone wine will be packaged—often in bottles shaped like living tigers—and sold for between $80 and $300, according to reports from the Environmental Investigation Agency and other international conservation organizations. The longer the bones steep in the rice wine, the higher the price the bottles will fetch.

China’s elite are purchasing many of the most expensive bootleg bottles, either to give as gifts, as displays of their own wealth, or for their future value, much in the same way that people invest in precious metals, according to J.A. Mills, author of the new book Blood of the Tiger, which details her 20-year career investigating wildlife crime.

She said one of the major driving factors in the illegal wildlife trade is now China’s “über-elite, who are investing in these items as a new asset class.” Quoting reports from undercover investigators working in the field, Mills said people are “banking on extinction”—buying products hoping that wild species will soon disappear.

“These items will become priceless if these species become extinct,” she said. “Banking on extinction is the newest, most deadly threat to the survival of wild tigers and other endangered species.”

Siberian tiger-bone wine is displayed for sale at the Siberian Tiger Park in
Harbin, China. (Photo: Hong Wu/Getty Images)

Investing in Extinction

Tigers, elephants, rhinos, bears, and even a few tree species have become new kinds of collectible investments, similar to fine art and antiques, several experts said.

As more collectors have entered the market, killing endangered species has grown increasingly profitable. Ivory wholesale prices, for example, have shot up from $564 per kilogram in 2006 to at least $2,100 today.

“Ivory prices have been skyrocketing,” said Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “When I go to ivory markets, people literally tell me ‘This is a good investment.’ ” Market buyers, she said, have recently come up with a new name for ivory: white gold.

A New Trend

Until a few years ago, traditional medicine played the biggest role in driving China’s illegal wildlife trade owing to the belief, not supported by science, that certain animal parts hold curative powers

Things began to change in 2008. Though the international ivory trade was banned in 1989, seven years ago the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species allowed a onetime sale of 105,000 kilograms of ivory to China and Japan. That kicked off a buying frenzy for culturally valuable ivory carvings that the initial supply could not satisfy. It also inspired the start of a deadly new poaching crisis that today threatens African elephants with extinction. Poached ivory can easily enter the market because “customers don’t know what is legal and what is illegal,” Mills said.

Within two years, conservation organizations began to notice that wildlife products were being sold for “wealth, not health.” One of the most blatant examples occurred at the end of 2011, when IFAW officials got word of a major auction planned just down the street from their office in Beijing.

“Through our investigations, we found that one auction house was about to sell off 400 bottles of tiger-bone wine in a hotel pretty much next door to our office,” said Gabriel. “We walked over there during our lunch break and investigated the preview.” In addition to the tiger-bone wine, they also found “numerous rhino horns and ivory carvings.” All but the ivory was illegal under Chinese law.

The discovery of the auction created an international outcry. As a result, China issued a notice to auction houses that the sale of tiger bones and rhino horns remains illegal. Auctioneers pulled endangered species from their offerings, a move that reduced their sales by $322 million in 2012.

But the trade did not stop. It just became less visible.

New Venues

“You rarely see endangered species for sale in physical shops in major cities,” said Zhou Fei, head of the China office for TRAFFIC, the international wildlife trade-monitoring network.

Instead, the trade has gone online.

“More recently, they have moved from websites to social media,” Fei said, noting that ivory tusks, rhino horns, bear gall bladders, hornbill beaks, and other products now turn up for sale on art collection websites, online forums such as Baidu Tieba, the mobile phone app Wechat, and even Facebook.

A small ivory ring can fetch about $1,000 in these markets. A full rhino horn can sell for $100,000 or more, according to the IFAW.

Items are sold under code names: “African materials” or “white plastic” for ivory, “red” for hornbill beaks, “striped T-shirt” for tiger skins, and “black” for rhino horns.

Some sales, according to investigators, are hidden in chat rooms that cannot be accessed unless someone invites you. Without that introduction, the doors remain locked to prying eyes.

The Growing Middle Class Is a Growing Problem

The prices for the most elaborately carved elephant tusks and rhino horns have grown so high that only China’s ultra-elite can afford to buy them. They are not the only buyers, however.

“The middle class aspires to becoming wealthy,” Gabriel pointed out. They are still buying smaller items such as ivory jewelry or trinkets in the hope that their value will increase.

Although they are only acquiring smaller items, the effect of China’s estimated half a billion middle-class consumers adds up. “When you look at China, everything is magnified,” said Julian Newman, campaigns director for the EIA, who has been investigating the illegal wildlife trade since 1997. “Even a small percentage of the population obviously has a big numeric impact.”

More Than One Way to Invest

While some people buy these products to hold on to, many others use them as a different kind of investment. The high price of ivory, tiger-bone wine, and other items makes them valuable in China’s gift-giving culture.

In other words, they are great for bribes.

“We’ve had many, many traders say that some of their customers want to provide ivory tusks or tiger-bone wine to government leaders or business contacts to create a chance of doing business,” said Newman.

In one notorious recent example, a Chinese businessman was arrested for electrocuting and eating a tiger at a banquet.

Here, the specter of traditional medicine lingers. “Tiger-bone wine has medicinal use,” Gabriel said, “but at current prices, they don’t buy it as a medicine. They buy it as a way to bribe officials.”

Culture Matters

One final element driving trade is wealth combined with a return to tradition.

Newman points to the recent surge in sales of old-style furniture called hongmu, made from rosewood trees, several species of which grow in South America, Africa, and Asia.

“It’s a style of furniture the emperors used,” he said. “It has become very fashionable again.”

The illegal trade in rosewood species from around the world now threatens several species with extinction—as well as the species that depend on the trees in the wild.

Here, too, there’s speculation.

“The price of rosewood has gone up so high now that a single cubic meter is worth over $50,000,” Newman said. “People are sitting on the wood, storing it away, and waiting for the price to go up” if certain rosewood species go extinct, EIA investigators have found.

Moving Forward

Reducing the demand and consumption of endangered wildlife—and saving some of these species from extinction—will require multiple approaches. As Zhou said, “We need to address all of the parts in the puzzle: international pressure, behavior change, government leadership, capacity building in law enforcement, and revision of existing laws.”

Those forces have been at work in the recent reduction in demand for shark fins. Zhou said he is also hopeful that the demand for ivory will soon decrease, and recent polls suggest that this is already starting to happen.

Newman acknowledged that persuading people not to buy wildlife products is a “long-term approach that’s not going to happen overnight.”

Meanwhile, though, he praised recent efforts to track down and punish the criminal enterprises responsible for poaching as well as the people within China who are working to change the existing laws. “It’s China’s law, so it needs to be changed by Chinese people,” he said.

Elephants, rhinos, and tigers may not have many more years to wait for change. “We haven’t got that much time for some of these species,” Newman said. 

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