OMDURMAN, Sudan — Deep inside this riverside city’s sprawling market, down a tight corridor of stalls crammed with ebony masks, crocodile skins and other African kitsch, a young shopkeeper reaches into a grimy display case and pulls out something rarer.
It’s a two-foot-long elephant tusk, perfectly curved and solid as stone, buffed and polished nearly to white. The asking price is 800 Sudanese pounds, about $400.
The tusk is one of the best specimens of ivory on sale in the souk, but it’s far from the only one. Wildlife experts say that the markets around the Sudanese capital of Khartoum form one of the world’s largest centers of the trade in illegal ivory, which is flourishing despite an 18-year global ban.
The major buyers of ivory by far, say shopkeepers, are Chinese expatriates, hundreds of whom work in Sudan’s booming oil and construction sectors and frequent these markets for souvenirs. Besides figurines and vases, Sudanese craftsmen now whittle raw tusks into scores of creamy-white ivory chopsticks.
But that may just be the beginning. Investigators believe there’s a much bigger underground business involving the smuggling of tusks directly to China, where ivory is re-emerging as a status symbol among the rising middle class.
In recent months, authorities in China have seized large shipments of illegal ivory — sometimes falsely labeled as timber or metals — hidden in large commercial shipping containers originating from African countries such as Cameroon and Nigeria. Sudan, with its proximity to unmonitored elephant populations in central Africa, is seen as a prime supplier.
In May, the Environmental Investigation Agency, a Washington-based advocacy group, reported that central Africa, including Sudan, has been the No. 1 source of illegal ivory imports into China since the mid-1990s. Conflict and political instability in the region “have produced fertile ground for well-organized ivory syndicates, with governments unable to provide adequate protection for elephant populations,” the agency found.
To conservationists, this represents one of the more troubling aspects of the growing economic relationship between China and Africa, which traded a record $55 billion worth of goods last year. Africa is rich in the raw materials that China needs, such as oil and metals, but many countries lack stringent law enforcement at borders and ports.
“China has been driving an increasing trend in the illegal trade in ivory since the latter part of the 1990s,” said Tom Milliken, regional director for the conservation group Traffic. “And no question about it — China is still the leading destination for illegal exports of ivory out of Africa.”
With ivory prices soaring — the value of Sudan’s best tusks have tripled in the past decade — poachers are once again taking aim at Africa’s elephants.
Decades of unchecked hunting drove the creatures nearly to extinction until 1989, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, outlawed ivory sales worldwide.
Africa’s elephant population has since rebounded to more than 400,000. But in the 12 months ending last August, authorities worldwide seized nearly 24 tons of contraband ivory — a figure that represents more than 2,000 dead elephants — according to a study by wildlife expert Samuel Wasser of the University of Washington.
The apparent surge in poaching was the major topic last month at a CITES conference at The Hague, Netherlands, where African countries such as Kenya and Mali fought to extend the moratorium on ivory sales for 20 years. Southern African countries, where elephant populations have recovered, wanted to repeal the ban.
Under a hard-fought compromise, four countries — South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe — were allowed to make one-time sales of government ivory stocks to Japan. After that, a nine-year freeze will be imposed.
But the rule figures to have little impact in Omdurman, a commercial hub situated across the Nile River from Khartoum. Merchants here described a small but well-organized ivory trade, with poachers in southern Sudan supplying tusks to Arab trade syndicates, which funnel them to the markets around Khartoum in the north.
Southern Sudan is a vast, ungoverned region just emerging from a 22-year civil war, and elephants — along with armed militia groups — are known to roam the forests and savannahs.
In Chad, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo — all war-torn countries that share porous borders with Sudan — conservationists report that Arab militiamen from Sudan regularly cross over to hunt elephants. In northern C.A.R., an employee of a French sport-hunting company was killed recently in a shootout with a Sudanese poacher, Milliken said.
According to Milliken and his colleagues, some of the same Arab militias that have terrorized civilians in Sudan’s western Darfur region — known locally as janjaweed — are now involved in the ivory trade. The region is rife with armed groups, however, making those accounts impossible to confirm.
Sudanese officials refused to comment on such reports, although authorities are trying to improve enforcement. In 2006, Sudan made 10 ivory seizures totaling 1.4 tons — “a pretty large volume for Sudan,” Milliken said. “That tells us that a lot of ivory is out there.”
In a 2005 survey, Care for the Wild International, a British advocacy group, found 11,000 ivory items for sale in 50 souvenir shops in Khartoum and Omdurman.
Mohammed, a 25-year-old who runs his family’s shop in Omdurman but didn’t want to give his last name for fear of the authorities, said new tusks arrive nearly every week and that the biggest buyers are Chinese and Russian expatriates. The family employs a handful of craftsmen who carve animal figurines, vases, chopsticks and other products in a back room of the shop.
It’s a lucrative business. The two-foot tusk Mohammed is selling for $400 only cost $75 from the Arab wholesaler, he said. He also showed off a lion figurine ($325) and a vase etched with the profile of a Nubian princess ($250).
“Some of these came from elephants that were already dead. Others they have to kill,” Mohammed explained. “This is what they tell us. Honestly, we don’t know.”