Thousands of ivory trinkets line the display shelves of a shop in Cairo. Picture: Traffic

Elephant ivory is still being sold openly to tourists in Cairo and other Egyptian holiday resorts, despite a two-decade international ban on sales.

A new study by the Traffic wildlife trade monitoring network suggests that most of the ivory sold in Cairo and Luxor is being bought by Chinese buyers, along with Spaniards, Italians and Americans.

Writing in the latest Traffic Bulletin published yesterday, endangered wildlife trade consultants Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne say they counted more than 8 000 ivory items on sale in the old market in Cairo, at Tahrir Square, in hotel curio shops and other tourist outlets.

Trade in ivory was banned in 1990 in terms of an international treaty, while an Egyptian decree in 1999 also banned the sale, import or export of elephant ivory.

Kenya, whose elephant population plunged from 65 000 animals in 1979 to about 17 000 a decade later, burned 12 tons of ivory in a spectacular bonfire in 1989 in an attempt to discourage poaching and to end ivory sales.

SA, on the other hand, continues to hoard the tusks of dead elephants. It auctioned nearly 47 tons of ivory in 2008 for nearly $6.7 million (R52.6m) to Japanese and Chinese bidders at a once-off sale sanctioned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

Commenting on the report released yesterday, Traffic spokesman Tom Milliken said: “Tourists buying ivory are potentiating this illegal trade, making a mockery of Cites and fuelling the poaching of Africa’s elephants.”

Martin and Vigne posed as tourists during their ivory survey in Cairo and Luxor in March and April last year.

“One author would distract the vendor by asking for prices and photographing items, while the other would count the pieces by type.”

Traders reported that most of the elephant tusks were brought into Egypt from Sudan, with some supplies coming from Kenya, Tanzania and Cote d’Ivoire.

Ivory items on sale included walking sticks, rosaries, name seals, chopsticks and figurines.

“In general, shopkeepers said that over half the ivory was bought by Chinese, both expatriates and tourists... Another said a group of Chinese would sometimes spend $50 000 on ivory in one session of bargaining.”

Martin and Vigne reported that while there had been two ivory seizures at Cairo airport last year, the Egyptian Wildlife Service had not confiscated any ivory items from retail outlets since 2003.

They have now urged Egyptian authorities to put an end to the flagrant illegal trade, and also urged international tour operators to put similar pressure on the Egyptian government.

Martin said raids on ivory outlets in Ghana and Ethiopia had led to a significant decline in retail sales.

“Similar action must be carried out in Egypt if the open sale of ivory in that country is to be stopped,” he said.