Beijing's master ivory carvers cling to a controversial art

Story highlights

  • Recent bans against ivory trade have resulted in decreased demand
  • Some regard ivory carving as an endangered art form
  • Alternative materials, like the use of mammoth tusks, are on the rise

Beijing (CNN)When Li Chunke started carving ivory in 1964, the number of elephants in Africa was still on the rise. Demand for ivory in China was practically non-existent and tusks could be bought for under $7 a kilogram.

Today, this figure is closer to $1,100 -- according to research by Save the Elephants.
    But while this marks a significant increase over the course of Li's career, the price of coveted xiangya (elephant teeth) has almost halved over the last 18 months.

      An endangered art form?

      Conservationists have welcomed the recent drop in demand, attributing it to awareness campaigns and President Xi Jinping's commitment to abolish the ivory trade in China.
      But for 65-year-old Li, these changing attitudes threaten an ancient art form and the livelihoods of many carvers.
      "Ivory carving represents Chinese traditional culture" he says, sipping green tea in his small apartment in Beijing.
      "Chinese people love it because it is an ancient skill -- it's a practice that belongs to the imperial arts."
      At the state-owned factory where he spent his five-decade career, Li would sculpt everything from small trinkets to full-length tusks adorned with classical scenes.

      Alternative raw materials to ivory

      Legal restrictions mean that he is rarely able to keep raw ivory at his home.
      Nonetheless, on the far side of his living room I find a small workshop besieged by chisels, drill bits and tools.
      Some are electronic, but the majority are simple hand tools -- the sort he trained with. From the clutter, Li picks out figurines carved from a variety of different materials.
      Ivory's rare combination of density and smoothness makes it ideal for intricate carving, but there are alternatives. Hippo, narwhal and walrus tusks possess similar qualities.
      "When we don't have ivory, we also use beeswax and agarwood," he explains.
      Li shows me a small horse statuette and an ancient goddess fashioned from a piece of mammoth tusk -- an ivory substitute excavated from the Siberian permafrost.
      "When we made carvings for export [in the 1960s] the products had to represent Chinese traditional culture -- it was merchandise," he recalls.
      "Now I can carve on any theme, including religion and modern life."