At Benfica Market, south of the Angolan capital, Luanda, tables are stacked with ivory trinkets from elephants illegally hunted in the forests of central Africa.
The buyers are from China’s 250,000-strong expatriate community, as estimated by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in May, in Africa’s second-biggest oil producer.
At the cement block and dirt-floor market about 10,000 ivory pieces, mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo, are on sale, according to Esmond Martin, a wildlife trade researcher based in Kenya who visited the site in March. The ivory is carved into Asian designs of Buddhas, dragon bracelets and necklaces to attract buyers.
“I was shocked,” Martin, 73, said in a July 2 telephone interview from Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. “It’s very rare to see so much ivory for sale in one specific small market. Underneath the tables were 10 trunks with more.”
The illegal trade in ivory stretches across Africa to Asia, from Kenya where poachers hacked the tusks off two of the country’s oldest elephants last month, to China where smugglers supply a growing middle class eager to display new wealth. Benfica is second only as a public ivory seller in Africa to Nigeria’s Lekki market in Lagos. Together Nigeria and Angola have fewer than 3,000 elephants, according to the United Nations.
Angolan craftsmen buy wholesale ivory for $150 to $200 a kilogram (2.2 pounds) while the price in Beijing is $2,100 per kilogram, said Martin, who has visited the Chinese capital.
“We have some internal issues as to who should be responsible for monitoring and evaluating this kind of illegal trade,” Soke Kudikuenda, head of biodiversity and conservation at the Angolan Ministry of Environment, said in a telephone interview in Luanda. “We have submitted documents to the Council of Ministers to determine whether this should be under our umbrella or under the umbrella of the Ministry of Agriculture.”
Angola last year joined the UN’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, according to its website. The 180-member group began in 1973 and tries to protect more than 35,000 species, it said.
“Angolan government authorities said late last month they’re unable to take action against the Benfica market until they change outdated legislation,” Tom Milliken, head of the World Wildlife Fund’s Traffic International department tracking illegal trade in rhinoceros and elephant products, said in an e-mailed reply to questions. “This is worrying as Angola is the country with the largest expatriate Chinese population in all of Africa and the market is humming.”
Central Africa is estimated to host 81,000 of the continent’s about 500,000 elephants, according to a 2012 report by the UN Environment Program. Southern Africa, with about 290,000, has the most with many of the pachyderms in Botswana and Zimbabwe.
About 22,000 African elephants were killed illegally in 2013, said Martin, citing information from Nairobi-based Save The Elephants. Martin, a native of Manhattan who’s lived in Kenya since the 1960s, does contract work for organizations including the World Wildlife Fund and the New York Zoological Society.
“Many of the sellers of the ivory are foreigners and they’re French-speaking so they’re coming from central Africa,” Martin said. “There’s organized crime in a large quantity of the raw tusks being sent. The people buying among the 10,000 pieces are mostly contract workers from China. But they also buy in bulk. They’ll buy 10 or 20 of the same thing.”
While Portuguese is spoken in Angola, French is used widely throughout central Africa.
Ivory shoppers and about 10 sellers at Benfica declined to comment when questioned by a Bloomberg reporter.
“Ivory-based products are bought mainly by Chinese and other Asians,” Pedro Miguel, a 47-year-old seller of carved wooden items alongside the ivory sellers, said in an interview at the market. “We know this is an illegal art but it’s also a way of living.”
Unemployment in Angola is estimated at about 25 percent, according to the Tunis-based African Development Bank. More than half the population of 21 million lives on less than $2 a day, according to the UN. The member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries pumped 1.66 million barrels of oil a day last month, second to Nigeria on the continent.
Customs officials in Hong Kong netted 790 kilograms of ivory valued at HK$7.9 million ($1.02 million) in 32 suitcases off one flight from Angola, the South China Morning Post reported on June 11.
Chinese construction crews abound in Angola after the Asian country was the first to help Angola secure oil-backed loans following the end of a 27-year civil war in 2002.
“China remains the singlemost important contemporary player in the illicit trade in ivory and the pattern of seizures confirms the global reach of China’s illegal trade activity,” Traffic said in a report last year. Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa are the most common conduits for the Asia-bound trade, Traffic said.
Last month in Kenya, Satao, a 45-year-old elephant that may have been the world’s largest, and Mountain Bull, a symbol for the Mount Kenya region, were killed in separate attacks.
“Get rid of the middlemen and the kingpins who are the traders who know the contacts in Asia and Africa and it would be very easy to close these markets down because the legislation is there and it’s wide open,” Martin said. It’s public trading “because they want to attract the customers who are over 95 percent Chinese,” he said.