The bustling souk of Omdurman is crammed with any manner of curiosities – from Bakelite telephones and colonial-era pocket watches to baby crocodiles fashioned into ashtrays
"You want ivory?" says one trader before sweeping away a collection of cow-bone necklaces to better display dozens of milky-white chopsticks. "Here, this is ivory."
Thousands of elephants are being slaughtered across Central Africa – in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, and Sudan – to supply Khartoum's ivory market despite an international ban imposed in 1989, according to conservationists. One group claims that Darfur militiamen are funding their movement by killing the elephants for their tusks and selling the ivory to Chinese buyers.
Conservation groups are urging the 171 countries in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meeting now in The Hague until June 16, not to lift restrictions on the ivory trade. CITES meets every two or three years to review trade rules on everything from orchids to the saw-tooth shark. Once again, the meeting has been dominated by the trade in ivory.
Southern African states, where elephant populations have rebounded, want regulations eased to allow them to supply lucrative Asian markets with ivory from animals that have died from natural causes.
But in a report presented to the CITES meeting, Traffic, a conservation group monitoring the illegal trade in wildlife, offered evidence that East Asian crime syndicates are fueling an increase in ivory trafficking.
The study shows that the size of ivory seizures is increasing, suggesting smuggling gangs are becoming more sophisticated and that domestic markets such as Sudan's are largely to blame.
Tom Milliken, director of Traffic's Africa program, acknowledges that the continent is split over the ivory trade.
"In southern Africa, even in Zimbabwe, which is facing a severe economic meltdown, we have an increasing elephant population," he says. "But it is central Africa that is seeing the biggest impact and it is really hemorrhaging ivory."
A study published earlier this year by researchers at the University of Washington, Seattle, estimates that 23,000 elephants or 5 percent of Africa's entire population was slaughtered for ivory in the 12 months prior to August 2006.
Mr. Milliken's survey found that an average of 92 seizures of ivory were being made around the world each month, with an increasing number of shipments weighing in at more than a ton. He says that the Sudanese trade is linked to conflict in Darfur, with unregulated markets, in Khartoum and neighboring Omdurman, supplying the global trade.
"It is really the janjaweed – those Darfur forces that are attacking civilians – that are precipitating the crisis, taking long journeys into Chad and the Central African Republic to slaughter elephants and bring the ivory back, maybe to trade for weapons," he says. "A lot of that is definitely going to China."
Khartoum officials either would not comment or could not be reached, despite repeated attempts.
Last week, CITES delegates gave final approval to a 2002 decision for the sale of 60 tons of African ivory to Japan – an agreement condemned by many conservationists. That sale will consist of 30 tons stockpiled by South Africa, 20 tons from Botswana and 10 tons from Namibia.
Southern African states want CITES to permit another, similar, one-time sale of 50 tons of ivory or a limited supply of controlled products sold to Asia.
The move is opposed by more than a dozen African states led by Kenya. They want CITES to agree to keep the current sanctions for 12 years, arguing that the continuing debate on lifting restrictions stimulates demand.
Holly Dublin, of the World Conservation Union, told the Associated Press that the southern African elephant population was growing by 4 percent annually. More than 50,000 animals were added to the herds in the last five years, and they now number around 300,000.
Botswana says the herds are becoming unmanageable, and animals are clashing more often with humans.
A head count in other parts of Africa is more difficult, Ms. Dublin said. West Africa, where early European trophy hunters killed elephants in massive numbers, has a confirmed population of fewer than 7,500.
In Central Africa "there is known to be heavy poaching and substantial illegal trade," Dublin said. Confirmed numbers have declined from 16,450 five years ago to 10,400 last year.
Meanwhile, the activity back at the famous markets of Omdurman – across the Nile from the modern capital, Khartoum – suggests regulations are failing to halt the illicit trade.
The historic city's dark nooks and crannies draw thousands of ex-patriate aid officials, diplomats, and oil workers looking for a souvenir. Crocodile skins hang from doorways and lion claws are sold as lucky charms. But it is ivory that attracts many of the shoppers.
Much of the raw ivory has been carved into chopsticks and name seals, which venders say are popular with Chinese shoppers. Their numbers have increased in recent years as a result of Sudan's isolation from the West and its "look East" policy.
About two-thirds of Sudan's oil exports are sold to China.
"The government came around to tell us to stop selling the ivory," says Mohammed El Ttiap, proprietor of the Folklore Sudan shop, crammed full of dusty silver trinkets, carpets, and ivory.
"They said they would come back to buy up the unsold items, but they never did so we just kept selling it."
Now, he says, most of the raw ivory is coming from southern Sudan. "The war there has ended and the elephants are returning so there is plenty of ivory."