WELLINGTON, March 1 (Xinhua) -- China's legal ivory trade offers a means to better protect African elephants rather than a laundering route for smuggled tusks from poached animals, says a New Zealand academic who has just completed an in-depth study of the trade in China.
Wildlife economist and Massey University lecturer Dr Brendan Moyle said some conservation groups with "very entrenched positions" were renewing calls for a total end to the legal trade in ivory ahead of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which opens in Thailand on Sunday.
But an expansion of the legal ivory trade might be the only way to ensure a well-regulated and sustainable trade and to conserve elephant populations, Moyle told Xinhua on Friday.
Seized shipments, including 24 tonnes found in Malaysia last year as well as smaller finds in Hong Kong, indicated that tonnes of illegal ivory were flowing out of Africa, Moyle said in a phone interview.
"They're being intercepted, but there's not been a lot of follow through between that and where they're headed it's the missing piece of the ivory puzzle," said Moyle.
A lack of coordination between the multiple law enforcement and border agencies in different countries and a lack of understanding of the importance of wildlife conservation work too often prevented further investigation into the destinations of the smuggled ivory, he said.
He suspected it was being stockpiled as the current tightly regulated ivory trade was creating uncertainties in the supply and pricing of ivory.
"There's a strong coalition of environment groups who are anti- trade they want a ban put on all ivory trade," said Moyle, who said he was a conservationist himself.
While ivory could be bought and sold around the world, China was often accused of fueling demand "probably because 1.4 billion people are Chinese and it's a very big market."
A moratorium until 2017 had been implemented after China's last legal import of 62 tonnes of ivory was approved in 2008 and arrived in 2009. This ivory was kept in state ownership before it was released to the small number of carvers who then sold their works through registered stores.
"The legal system in China is really, really good and each piece of ivory is tracked through a unique photo ID and recorded in a database at each stage of the process," he said.
The system and the small number of artisans and regulated stores meant China had "too many bottlenecks" to be a laundering outlet for illegal ivory.
"You can't flood the market when you've only got 4 or 5 tonnes a year to play with," he said.
Much of the illegal ivory came from areas of social and political unrest in western Africa, but more stable nations in eastern and southern Africa had thriving elephant populations that could sustainably supply a legal trade with tusks taken from elephants as they died naturally, he said.
"This would remove the uncertainty regarding the legal supply and the need to stockpile ivory. It would actually help elephant conservation," he said.
"China has been using elephant ivory for almost 4,000 or 5,000 years to make products that very prestigious," said Moyle. "A ban would be economically naive because the legal trade doesn't create demand."
He had recommended to Chinese authorities that they start a price index for retail ivory so the market could be properly analyzed and to step up efforts to educate the public that legal ivory was helping conservation.
More work was needed to find out exactly where the illegal ivory was ending up, but this would require "covert work," he said without giving details.
"This is a problem that requires an economic solution rather than a kneejerk reaction, such as a total ban."