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The recent trip to China was focused on the elephant ivory trade in that country. Since 2008 the Chinese government has decided to support and sustain the ivory carving industry. Ostensibly this is because it is recognised as an example of intangible cultural heritage. In 2008 62 tones of raw ivory was legally purchased from four southern African countries, under the auspices of CITES. The shipment arrived in 2009. In background terms the data we have suggest that illegal market in ivory has been growing for about a decade. So there is a lot of concern that about potential links between the legal and illegal markets.

As we were working in China, a side issue to our research did come to light. This is the efforts by some Westerners to research the black market. One tactic is to try to buy illegal ivory from ivory-dealers. (Mostly however, shops are visited to see if they are selling ivory legally or in compliance with regulations).

I’m really baulking at this 'buy illegal ivory' ploy. It took us two years of groundwork to get access to the Chinese ivory-market. The positive is we got superb access to all kinds of people and loads of good information. Imagining you can just drop into China and then start finding out what’s happening by trying to buy illegal ivory is hopelessly naïve.

The problem goes beyond this however. The first is the ethical dimension. Pretending you are interested in illegal ivory is a deliberate deceit. Now, whilst this is an important method to draw people out of the illegal market, it’s something that has to be done with a lot of safeguards. The typical buyer of legal ivory products is a mature, informed collector. It is someone who knows the differences in Shanghai, Guangzhou or Beijing styles. It is someone who can appreciate the differences in clarity, density and hardness of the ivory. It is someone familiar with the actual master carvers. It starts to become an absurd comical farce when Westerners pretend they’re a credible consumer. I was told of some appalling examples of this by dealers. They’re not being fooled.

If you haven’t done your preparation and background research properly then I believe, it is unethical to be posing as a potential buyer of illegal ivory. This is compounded by the risk of entrapment. The interest in buying ivory may cause the person to try to find illegal ivory for you. Again, this is murky ethical ground with potentially dubious consequences.

Not only is the ethics of this method that worries me. I’m also concerned that it can generate misleading information. Given the actual purchase cannot be carried out, the ‘potential buyer’ gambit cannot separate transactions that would:
1) use fake ivory (of which much exists) or
2) legal ivory brought from a registered retailer, and then resold with a markup to the ersatz consumer, or
3) illegal ivory from a genuine black-market source

If someone conspicuously ignorant of the ivory market is giving the impression they have more money than sense, selling them fakes is a pretty low risk way to make a quick return. Perhaps we should not be quite so surprised at "researchers" who find it so easy to get offers of illegal ivory in China.

My last peeve is it makes the work of others researchers harder. We did the ground work. Yet we encountered suspicion over our ‘agenda’ as a consequence of these blundering efforts. That meant information was being held back. It’s something that compromises research by people who do know what they’re doing.