Animal welfare campaigner Ge Rui is at the forefront of a campaign to raise awareness among ordinary Chinese of the illegal trade in ivory, along with other products from endangered species.
In October, a major ivory seizure in Hong Kong uncovered roughly four tons of ivory products—estimated to be valued at more than U.S.$3.4 million and estimated by animal welfare activists to be the equivalent to 500 elephants.
"This is very alarming," Ge said in a recent interview. "The ivory we are seeing in smuggled shipments is getting smaller and smaller, which could mean that they are killing young elephants on the savannah."
"But the ivory that was seized in Hong Kong was more likely to have come from the killing and maiming of jungle elephants," she said. "Jungle elephants and savannah elephants are different species."
Seven people were arrested after Hong Kong officials seized nearly 1,000 pieces of ivory, coming from Kenya and Tanzania via a complicated smuggling route that touched several transit points internationally to avoid detection.
The United Nations recently said it viewed illegal wildlife trafficking as a form of transnational organized crime, and Ge Rui said the gangs had recently shifted their focus to jungle elephants, in order to evade detection.
Animal welfare campaigners say that numbers of some African wildlife species are bordering on extinction levels, pointing to a recent massacre of 250 elephants in Cameroons, as well as killings of rhinos and elephants in southern Africa.
Hard to estimate
Ge said it was hard to estimate the remaining numbers in jungle elephant populations, however.
"Most [jungle elephants] live in the jungles of central and western Africa, where the forest is very dense, and it's very hard to study them. It's also very hard to estimate their numbers," Ge said.
"This provides an opportunity for smugglers."
She said IFAW had already found evidence of large-scale ivory poaching and illegal hunting in Cameroon.
"At the beginning of this year, IFAW representatives found the massacred bodies of 600 elephants inside a protected area in the central African state of Cameroon," Ge said.
"Among them was an entire family that had been wiped out. Elephants do everything in family groups; they forage for food together, and the poachers didn't even spare the baby elephants."
Experts estimate that the trade in wild animal parts is now the third most profitable form of smuggling after arms and drugs.
Campaigners say that billions of dollars from the smuggling of ivory and rhino horn is now flowing into the hands of international organized crime syndicates, who don't always sell the endangered animal parts on immediately after acquiring them.
"Our investigations have found a very dangerous phenomenon," Ge said. "It doesn't matter whether it is ivory or rhino horn or tiger parts that are being smuggled; a lot of endangered species that were previously being used in traditional Chinese medicine are now being stockpiled or sold for investment auction."
She said many Chinese people were still unaware that ivory was taken from dead elephants, and that the trade in ivory contribute to large-scale massacres of elephants.
"IFAW did a survey in China which found that a lot of people thought that ivory just came from discarded elephant tusks, and that the elephants would grow new tusks if they lost their old ones."
However, recent advertising campaigns focusing on the problem had had some impact, she said, with hoardings in major Chinese cities.
Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.