Photography by Bill Sitzmann, artwork images provided by Reggie LeFlore
His portraits may share similarities to the vandalism-tarnished genre, but for LeFlore, his art form is all about transforming communities.
“I love working with organizations and community leaders to create a series of work that’s out in the public,” explains LeFlore, who works primarily in portraiture. “My portrayals can help uplift an otherwise drab space with art.”
LeFlore’s mission started from humble beginnings, including art classes at Benson High School where he would meet his friend Gerard Pefung. After high school, LeFlore’s aspirations to illustrate cartoons and comic books led him to pursue graphic design while Pefung went in a different direction. A chance meeting years later would lead to LeFlore’s first foray into street art.
“I go to a party, and I see this massive indoor mural and Pefung is standing in front of it,” LeFlore reminisces. “I find out that he created it, and I’m flabbergasted. At that moment I decided to take my craft and elevate it by jumping into public art.”
Leflore would pick up an aerosol can for the first time at Pefung’s studio, eventually developing a signature style remixing existing images with his hybrid stencil method. He became acquainted with community art organizers—including folks involved with Benson First Friday—and he started to pay more attention to public art and murals around town. With his desire to showcase his art, LeFlore participated in shows at The Union of Contemporary Arts’ Wanda B. Ewing Gallery in North Omaha and exhibited in Chicago (in a gallery and on the street). But he longed for an international platform.
After admiring constant social media posts about Hong Kong’s street art scene from a Nebraska friend (Craig Schuster) living in the Chinese territory, LeFlore became determined to showcase his art there. With income earned from personal commissions and teaching at The Union of Contemporary Arts, he was able to move toward his goal with a trip to the former British colony.
“I did research and found that I didn’t need to know Cantonese or Mandarin to live in Hong Kong,” LeFlore says. “It made it easy for me to adapt, and I utilized my time there to build opportunities and meet my friend, Hughie [Doherty], who owns a screen printing shop in Stanley, Hong Kong.”
During the day, Stanley is a busy seaside marketplace with a labyrinth of shops selling clothing, trinkets, and toys. When the neighborhood shops close for the night, a vibrant street art scene emerges. Artworks reveal themselves, painted on the shutters of local establishments.
Schuster, his Nebraska expat friend, introduced LeFlore to a local arts nonprofit called HK Walls. HK Walls “aims to create opportunities for local and international artists to showcase their talent in Hong Kong.” The nonprofit helped LeFlore with resources in Hong Kong, introducing him to Doherty and a host of local street artists. From there, LeFlore set off to create his masterpiece amongst the shutters.
A collaboration with Schuster led to “Kowloon Influence,” an art piece depicting Tsang Tsou Choi, a legendary Hong Kong graffiti artist (known as the King of Kowloon) who spent decades scrawling his family’s ancestral claims to Kowloon—a large portion of Hong Kong’s land area—in calligraphy that he painted on public walls throughout the bustling city.
In order to pay homage to the King of Kowloon, LeFlore made stencils of Tsang Tsou Choi’s calligraphy and combined them with a friend’s referenced photographs creating a surreal portrait on a city street.
LeFlore’s recent move to the Twin Cities has immersed him in Minnesota’s own thriving visual arts community. While his girlfriend, Heather Peebles, pursued her Master of Fine Arts at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, he linked up with a comprehensive group of like-minded creatives.
“I still keep my connections in the Big O,” LeFlore says. “I consider Watie White as a mentor, and my cousin, Joanna LeFlore helped me establish my style. The Union for Contemporary Art has also been amazing.”
LeFlore is in the process of pursuing a collaborative project with Omaha photographer Alicia Davis, but here is where street art clashes with the rebel spirit of graffiti. Their project has run into some unexpected roadblocks.
“The graffiti artist in me says to stop asking for permission, come down, and get some stuff up there,” he says. “North Omaha should have a bigger public art presence. The conversation behind street art is what makes it cool, and I’m sure it could help reinvigorate the community.”
Visit ral86.com for Reggie LeFlore’s personal website.
This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.
A group of horses first caught Lisa Yanney Roskens’ attention from a picturesque pasture beside her childhood home in Bloomfield Hills, a subdivision near Westroads Mall. Ever since, she has been enamored with horses.
By the time she was 5 years old, her parents, Gail and Michael Yanney, bought her a pony named Taffy. A year later, Roskens began taking Western riding lessons, and by her preteens, she joined Jan Mactier at Ponca Hills Farm and began learning English riding. She rode and competed in equitation (the art of riding) through high school, through her college years at Stanford University, and eventually sold her horse upon returning to Omaha in the early 1990s.
At that point, she began running instead of riding. But her former riding master knew where Roskens’ heart lay.
“Jan called me up one day and said, ‘let’s go for a ride’ and I’ve never gone back,” Roskens says.
Roskens began training again, in earnest, eventually getting back to competition. She rekindled her passion for horses, and in 2009, began looking at bringing the sport to Omaha when she attended the FEI World Cup in Las Vegas, the world’s top equestrian event.
“I was a junkie, and I went to see my heroes, and I wanted to see what this top level competition was like,” Roskens says. “I was overwhelmed at the level of horsemen, but I was underwhelmed with the facility, the layout, and how everything was set up, from both a spectator’s perspective and a horseman’s perspective.”
She began to work towards bringing the event to Omaha.
“I found some friends. What does a girl do but get all of her friends together and say, ‘let’s figure out how to solve this problem,’ ” Roskens says lightheartedly.
The friends she brought together included businesspeople, horse people, and marketing and promotions people. She brought onboard Harold Cliff of the Omaha Sports Commission, whom Roskens says was “incredibly helpful.” By 2013, she and her friends watched their sport in their hometown (at the International Omaha), and last year, they won their bid to secure the 2017 World Cup. Omaha’s bid beat out London, Hong Kong, and ’s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands.
“To be honest, I thought the bid was kind of a trial run,” Roskens says. “We threw everything we had at it, but I really thought they’d get to know us, and we’d win for 2018. The entire equestrian community was surprised, and pleased.”
Roskens, who trains on two horses six days a week, frequently rides in the mornings before getting ready for her day job as chairman and CEO of Burlington Capital. While she pondered riding professionally in the past, she appreciates that her business acumen can bring knowledge to this sport.
“It’s easy to get caught up in how things are done and not look at them with innovation and a fresh set of eyes,” Roskens says. “That’s what I can bring to my sport.”
Roskens also credits some advice given to her by her parents for allowing her to keep her hobby as a hobby.
“Back when I was in high school, and I was considering becoming a professional rider, they said, ‘remember, when your hobby becomes your career, it’s no longer voluntary, and it changes the nature of your hobby fundamentally,’” she remembers.
So while it may seem as though Roskens has two careers, she is happy to continue pursuing riding as a hobby.
“[People who turn hobbies into careers] go at it with this joy, this sense of fun, which is great, but if you don’t know how to balance your books, and you don’t know how to negotiate a lease, you either need to find someone who does, or you need to learn how,” she says.
Roskens and her friends have learned how, and that has enabled them to bring a world-class event to Omaha. When the FEI World Cup rolls into town in April, visitors will find an event that has been set up by a team of disciplined and passionate horsemen ready to welcome (and take on) the world.
The new year marks the 150th anniversary of Nebraska’s statehood. The January/February issue of Omaha Magazine touches on that milestone. But we don’t stop there. We take you even deeper into prehistoric times…15,000 years ago, back when mammoths roamed what would eventually become our great state…and 15 million years ago, around the time ancient elephants were en route to North America.
Growing up in Nebraska, I always marveled at the fossils of mammoths found in museums across the state. Ever since childhood, I have been intrigued by the ancient giants—remains of Ice Age creatures that have been unearthed from all but three of Nebraska’s counties.
When I was living and working as a journalist in Hong Kong, I was surprised to discover shops selling traditional Chinese ivory carvings made from mammoth tusks. The prehistoric ivory allows Chinese craftsmen to carve exquisite works of art. Unfortunately, traditional Chinese ivory carving has decades of association with the tragic killing of African elephant populations.
A global ban on elephant ivory has been in place since 1989, but the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora does not regulate extinct animals or fossils.
The strange dynamics involving my state’s official fossil seized my interest. Mammoth ivory is legal, and prehistoric tusks are offering an alternative to living elephants’ ivory.
I began research and writing about China’s mammoth ivory trade for a story published in China Daily’s HK Edition, where I was a staff feature writer. After two years of working at the newspaper, I received sad news. My father was diagnosed with colon cancer. I was heading home.
But before leaving Asia, I took a month-long reporting trip across mainland China to explore the mammoth ivory supply chain for my former employer’s magazine, China Daily Asia Weekly. The reporting trip took me to Beijing, Fujian, Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang, and Guangdong before I returned to Omaha.
My travels preceded the first mammoth ivory bans in the U.S. Since then, four states have outlawed the sale and purchase of mammoth ivory. More recently, China (the world’s largest market for black market ivory) has partnered with the U.S. (the world’s second largest market for black market ivory) to tighten restrictions on the ivory trade. China’s increasing regulatory pressure would likely result in growing demand for the mammoth tusks locked in Arctic permafrost.
Before I joined Omaha Magazine, a follow-up mammoth ivory research trip was in order. I returned to Asia with my favorite translator—i.e., my wife (who has written an introduction to Omaha’s most authentic Chinese cuisine in this issue)—and refreshed my research with ivory traders in Hong Kong and Beijing.
Funding for the reporting trip came from The Andy Award, an international reporting grant from the University of Nebraska at Omaha (named after Harold W. Anderson, former publisher of the Omaha World-Herald).
This issue’s cover story is a byproduct of that Andy Award. The trip also provided the basis for a paper that I presented at a panel during the American Anthropological Association’s annual conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in November.
I hope you enjoy the story and this issue of Omaha Magazine. Happy New Year!
Doug Meigs is the executive editor of Omaha Publications.
Chinese Lunar New Year falls on January 28 this year. The holiday is like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s all rolled into a week of celebrations. This year will be my third Lunar New Year in Omaha. Since relocating to the Midwest, I have developed a small go-to list for dishes that taste like home (or at least satiate my appetite until my next return visit to Hong Kong).
When coworkers ask me to recommend “real” Chinese food, I often probe how adventurous they are with eating. Authentic Chinese cuisines do not usually come with a thick brown or red sauce. Sometimes, signature dishes also feature uncommon ingredients. Although I never fancied chicken feet, I know several European Americans who will gobble down the dish (which translates to “phoenix talons” in my native Cantonese language) at any opportunity.
Chinese cuisines vary depending on region. Sichuanese (from western China) is known for its “mala” numbing spice. Cantonese (from Hong Kong and Guangdong) is famous for fresh seafood and dim sum. Dumplings, maybe even more than rice, are beloved in northern Chinese cuisines. You might even say Americanized Chinese food is authentic in its own way, with its distinct flavors and history woven into the story of Chinese migration.
1. Fresh housemade dim sum
I was excited to see barbecue pork and duck hanging on display upon entering Canton House Restaurant during my first visit; the Cantonese diner reminds me of the typical Hong Kong-style café (also known as a “cha chaan teng”). The chef started his career in Hong Kong decades ago and has brought a long list of authentic Hong Kong dishes to his restaurant in northwestern Omaha. Dim sum—bite-size breakfast hors d’oeuvres—are freshly made to order; I highly recommend ordering a variety and enjoying them with a group of friends. Stuffed eggplant, fish slices in congee (rice porridge), and sliced beef with pan-fried rice noodles are among my top three choices.
Tucked in the corner of a strip mall on 72nd Street, Blue and Fly Asian Kitchen is a homey eatery that is crowded with Chinese students every night. The traditional Chinese menu features a range of quick-fried and fish dishes that are iconic of Shandong cuisine. A bilingual handwritten menu beside the kitchen offers a further selection of seasonal delicacies. The owners are generous in sharing their cultural heritage with patrons; for example, in the last Mid-Autumn Festival, they gave out handmade “mooncakes” to diners to share celebration of the Chinese holiday. I have yet to order anything I do not enjoy at Blue and Fly (and I am definitely a frequent patron). My personal favorites include spicy shredded potato (a cold appetizer), spicy pig intestine (an entrée), and a specialty dessert—caramelized sweet potato.
3. Cantonese-style barbecue duck and barbecue pork buns
Order a Cantonese-style duck (half) to go with a bowl of rice, and you will get an authentic Hong Kong lunch experience. Grand Fortune Chinese Restaurant also has an extensive dim sum menu—the baked barbecue pork pastry and baked barbecue pork bun are must-tries as you may only find the steamed version in other dim sum shops in town. Steamed barbecue pork buns are known as “cha siu bao” in Cantonese. Cha siu bao, pork and shrimp dumplings (“siu mai”), and shrimp dumplings (“har gow”) are regular fixtures of dim sum brunch anywhere in the world.
New Gold Mountain is crowded with families after church on Sundays. The restaurant has an intimate atmosphere. Its fried items—such as salt and pepper shrimp, deep-fried minced pork shrimp dumplings, and crispy fried tofu are all finger-licking good. Meat lovers can try barbecue pork with five spiced beef. The meat platter is a common dinner staple in Hong Kong, and is best enjoyed with a bowl of rice and some stir-fried vegetables.
People may not associate Three Happiness Express with authentic Chinese food. But its kung pao tofu is a good representation of Chinese cooking. The tofu is perfectly fried to form a crispy crust; the dish is not drowned, rather it is drizzled with a light brown sauce. The restaurant’s steamed dumplings are also authentic, as long as you skip the sweet and spicy sauce and dip it in soy sauce. Friends from the neighborhood have professed a deep love for the crab rangoons, Princess Chicken, and Loc’s Chicken Wings (and these dishes are definitely American Chinese inventions).
Golden Palace has an old-school menu and an Oriental interior design that suggest the restaurant has been passed down through generations. The restaurant serves polished classic American Chinese food. The barbecue back ribs are the absolute bomb.
The “secret menu” of Jade Palace offers authentic Chinese cuisines. Even if you don’t read Chinese, pick a protein and ask the server what he/she recommends. The owner suggested we try “water boiled fish”—beware though, the Sichuanese dish is cooked with a lot of red hot chili peppers. The heat index of the fish is a challenge (southerners, like me, are not known for eating spicy). Be sure to discuss the level of spiciness before ordering.
China Garden Restaurant has a winter hot pot special. The communal dish is popular in colder months. Select meats and vegetables from a list, and the server will bring a pot of broth and a portable stove for you to cook the food in. The restaurant offers most of the favorites of Sichuanese cuisine. To drink, ask the server if sweet-sour plum juice is available. Other thirst-quenching options include Tsingtao beer and canned Chinese herbal tea, “Wong Lo Kat.”
The interior design of King Fong Cafe resembles that of Chinese courtyard houses. The wood carvings and chandeliers (imported from Canton, the old name of Guangzhou) are well-preserved—the visual enjoyment is a feast in itself. The restaurant is not only the oldest Chinese restaurant in town, it is the longest-running restaurant in the city.
* Note: King Fong Cafe announced its temporary closure in 2016 and had not announced a reopening date at the time of Omaha Magazine‘s publication deadline.
Another great way to discover new dishes is to ask the server what Chinese customers have ordered. If something looks delicious at another table, ask your server what it is. For anyone looking to celebrate the Lunar New Year with a Chinese feast, please note that restaurants may close during the festival, so check ahead to confirm if they are open.
Authenticity aside, I absolutely love when fortune cookies arrive with the bill. The American Chinese invention (or American Japanese, depending on the origin story) coincides with Chinese affinity for auspicious signs. Happy Lunar New Year! May your fortune cookie bring good luck!
How do you say “Happy New Year” in Chinese?
“Gong hei fat choi!” That’s Cantonese (the language of Hong Kong and Guangdong).
“Xin nian kuai le!” That’s Mandarin (the official language of mainland China and Taiwan)
…and for a preview of the 2017 Nebraska Chinese Association Lunar New Year Celebration:
The buried remains of Ice Age mammoths hold secrets to the story of climate change and the rise of mankind.
Mammoths vanished from Earth some 11,000 years ago at the end of the geological epoch known as the Pleistocene, but their story grows increasingly significant today with contemporary discussions of global warming and the alarming rate of wildlife species extinctions worldwide.
As the United States and China crack down on legal channels for buying and selling African elephant ivory— due to a quirk of international treaty regulations—Chinese ivory traders have begun turning to tusks from prehistoric woolly mammoths.
Traditional Chinese ivory craftsmanship has a history dating back thousands of years. Ironically, the continuation of the ancient Chinese art form could become dependent on supplies of ivory from extinct woolly mammoths.
Mammoths are the ancient relatives of modern elephants. Although their closest living relative is the Asian elephant, they also share the biological family “Elephantidae” with African elephants. Paleontologists have excavated their long-nosed (i.e., proboscidean) kin on nearly every continent, except for Antarctica and Australia.
Nebraska has an especially rich history of elephants. In fact, the mammoth is Nebraska’s official state fossil. Mammoths or mastodons have been uncovered in all but three of Nebraska’s 93 counties (every one except Grant, Arthur, and Wayne counties).
“Our elephants first come over about 14 million years ago into North America, and Nebraska is probably the only place in the country where you can find a complete sequence until their demise in the late Ice Age, 10-12,000 years ago. Nebraska is probably one of the few places where you can document the entire history of the Proboscidea in North America,” says George Corner, collection manager at Morrill Hall, the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln.
Nebraska’s State Fossil
Mammoths were mythical creatures to the young Corner. As a kid growing up in rural Blue Hill, his family would travel to the capital every year for the state basketball tournament. Across from the Nebraska Coliseum (the tournament’s home prior to the Devaney Center’s construction) was Morrill Hall.
He would resort to temper tantrums if his father wouldn’t let him “go look at the elephants” during their Lincoln visits, Corner says with a laugh.
The paleontologist (who turned 69 in January) stands in the middle of “Elephant Hall,” where gigantic specimens of the state’s rich proboscidean history loom overhead. He has spent 47 years working for the museum—starting with field studies as an undergraduate student of geology, and with the museum’s highway salvage project during and after his master’s in geology.
Corner, who jokes about being as old as the creatures on display, credits the bulk of the collection to Erwin H. Barbour. In 1891, the Ohio-raised Barbour came to the University of Nebraska to head its geology department. Within a year of landing in Lincoln, Barbour had taken charge of curating the museum; he served as its director for roughly 50 years.
The crown jewel of the museum’s Elephant Hall goes by the nickname Archie. That’s short for Archidiskodon imperator maibeni. Archie is a Columbian mammoth (a southern branch of the mammoth genus, which may have lacked the shaggy-coat of its northern woolly mammoth relatives). Both Columbian and woolly mammoths once roamed the grasslands of Nebraska.
“We like to claim that Archie is the largest mounted mammoth in the world, but I’ll show you one thing that Barbour did,” Corner says. “Look at his toes. He’s mounted on his tippy-toes. Now, you can’t tell me that an elephant of that size could stand on his tippy-toes.” (Archie would have likely weighed in the realm of 8,400 kilograms, the size of a large bull African elephant plus 20 percent.) “But Barbour wanted as much height as possible.”
Archie stands in a semi-circle of proboscidean specimens that stretch from prehistoric non-elephants into modern-day varieties—from long-jawed mastodons, to stegomastodons, to mastodons, to the elephant family: mammoths (though a woolly mammoth is not on display at the museum) and culminating in modern Asian and African elephants.
“Some of these critters came over to North America as they were, so there wasn’t a lot of evolution in place. Most of the evolution probably took place in the Old World and then migrated over in the late Miocene,” Corner says, explaining how elephants traveled to Nebraska via the Bering land bridge that once linked northeastern Russia to Alaska.
Asian and African elephants have only recently ventured into Nebraska with help from modern man.
The museum’s Asian elephant specimens came from two that died when a Campbell Brothers Circus train caught fire at Pawnee City in 1904 (only to be excavated by Barbour’s graduate student two years later). The museum’s African elephants on display include the skeleton of an African elephant that had died in a German zoo—acquired before the construction of Morrill Hall in 1927—and taxidermy mounts shot during a 1920s safari by Adam Breede, the publisher of the Hastings Tribune (who contributed most of the museum’s collection of African taxidermy).
“In Nebraska, mammoths became extinct along with 85 percent of all animals larger than the size of a jackrabbit 10-12,000 years ago. And I can’t tell you why,” Corner says, who speculates that climate change, disease, maybe an asteroid, or any combination of such factors, could have driven Nebraska’s mammoths to extinction at approximately the same time that mammoths went extinct worldwide.
Early humans lived alongside mammoths in the landscape that would eventually become the state of Nebraska. But Corner doubts that mankind could have been entirely responsible for the demise of mammoths: “Early Nebraskans witnessed the extinction of these animals, and they were opportunists; they hunted them—but I do not think they were the final cause.”
On remote islands, isolated pockets of woolly mammoths lingered past the species’ mass die-off. The last known living woolly mammoths went extinct on Wrangel Island (a secluded Russian territory in the Arctic Ocean) as recently as 3,700 years ago.
Why did mammoths go extinct? “That’s the big question in paleontology,” Corner says. “Go to the African savannah—we had analogs in the New World to all these animals. In Nebraska, we had elephants, rhinoceros, and camels. Why did all those big game animals become extinct here when they managed to survive in Africa—where there were more humans hunting them? Why? We don’t know.”
NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA Remains of more than 10,000 extinct elephants have been found in Nebraska, but far less than 1 percent of the state has been carefully explored for fossils.
Elephant and Mammoth Ivory
Modern elephants in Africa face persistent pressure from poachers and conflict with human settlements that encroach on an evermore limited range of habitat.
To address the poaching crisis, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (which went into effect in 1975) banned the ivory trade in 1989. But African elephant populations had already collapsed during the decade leading up to the ban, falling from roughly 1.3 million to 600,000 elephants.
Despite decades of coordinated international efforts to protect African elephants, grim statistics remain a reality today: “An elephant is killed every 15 minutes,” according to The Ivory Game, Netflix’s original documentary released in November 2016. The vast majority of that blood ivory is destined for China.
The CITES ban has allowed several technical loopholes for African elephant ivory. For example: pre-Convention and pre-ban (antique) ivory could be bought or sold, as could ivory harvested from African safari hunts.
After Beijing declared traditional Chinese ivory carving to be an “intangible cultural heritage” in 2006, China participated in a one-off purchase of 108 tons of ivory sourced from naturally deceased elephants in 2008. The sale raised $15 million for African conservation, and the Chinese government has been slowly allocating the stockpile to licensed factories for sale only in the domestic Chinese market. Many environmentalists view the sale as a failure for stimulating demand and providing a front for the laundering of “blood ivory.”
Mammoth ivory is an entirely different beast. CITES does not regulate the trade in fossils or extinct animals. Prehistoric ivory is a way around the global regulation of elephant ivory.
Most of the world’s untouched mammoth ivory remains locked in the frozen permafrost of Siberia. When snows melt during the brief Arctic summer (from mid-July to mid-September), riverbanks often reveal prehistoric remains. Warmer summers means the permafrost is thawed longer every year. That means more and more mammoth tusks are protruding from the ground every year.
Indigenous locals, seasonal tusk hunters, and Russian gangs aggregate the raw tusks in Siberia. Officially, the tusks must be approved for export by the government authorities, but traders (and smugglers) are increasingly taking their purchases directly into mainland China over the land border with Russia, Mongolia, or neighboring countries.
Chinese demand for mammoth ivory has pros and cons. The trade is potentially beneficial for identification of excavation sites—hunting of tusks is incentivized, so tusks are saved that would otherwise be destroyed from exposure to the elements after millennia underground; however, the trade destroys the integrity of excavation sites disrupted by tusk hunters.
According to John E. Scanlon, the Secretary-General of CITES, more than 90 percent of Russian mammoth ivory exports went to China (including Hong Kong) in the past 10 years, with total Chinese imports surpassing 80 tons annually from 2010 to 2015 according to the official trade database of the United Nations.
NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA Nebraska’s state fossil is not just ancient history. The mammoth is an important player in the global ivory trade today.
Changing Regulatory Landscapes
Today, on the crowded streets of Hong Kong’s tourist districts, there are roughly half a dozen storefronts that advertise mammoth ivory products for sale. Signs visible outside the mammoth shops promote the legality of prehistoric ivory—tusks of extinct woolly mammoths harvested from the frozen permafrost of Russian Siberia.
Hong Kong played a crucial role in developing China’s niche mammoth ivory market. Before and after the CITES ban, the former-British colony (which became a special administrative region of China in 1997) also served as a key transit hub for elephant ivory—legal and illegal—entering the mainland Chinese market.
Implementation of the 1989 elephant ivory ban brought about major declines in Hong Kong’s ivory carving industry. During the same time period, however, the mainland Chinese economy enjoyed rapid economic growth—boosting demand for luxurious ivory products among the nation’s nouveau riche.
As demand for ivory intensified in China, the government implemented an extensive licensing system, mandatory certification cards for legal elephant ivory products, stiff penalties, and a crackdown on smuggling. Despite the risks, black market ivory dealers continued to cash in on Chinese market conditions to maintain the country’s status as the world’s primary destination for black market elephant ivory (followed next by the United States).
Destructions of seized ivory stockpiles followed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crushed more than 6 tons of confiscated ivory in Denver, Colorado, in November 2013. Then, two months later, Chinese authorities crushed more than 6 tons of its own seized ivory in Guangzhou province. Over the course of 2014-2016, Hong Kong’s government followed suit with the incineration of 28.86 tons, nearly all of its seizure stockpile—the world’s largest ivory burn until Kenya torched 105 tons ($172 million worth) of ivory in 2016.
During a September 2015 meeting in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to enact “nearly complete bans on ivory import and export, including significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies, and to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.”
In the U.S., tightened elephant ivory laws went into effect in July of 2016 to close loopholes for pre-ban ivory, antiques, and hunting trophies.
Cheryl Lo, a senior wildlife crime officer with the World Wildlife Fund in Hong Kong told Omaha Magazine in late November that she expected Beijing to reveal China’s implementation plan sometime in December. No status update had been released as of the magazine’s press deadline. Hong Kong officials had already announced the implementation plan for the territory’s more stringent ivory regulation in June 2016.
Lo says her research for the WWF found that Hong Kong’s registered elephant ivory stockpile has remained level for many years, indicating that traders were likely replenishing with black market stocks.
She says more research on mammoth ivory in Hong Kong is needed. At this moment, she says there is no evidence to prove systematic laundering or smuggling of African elephant ivory into China under the guise of mammoth tusks. “The current concern is probably at the individual store level—shops that intentionally or accidentally misrepresent or mislabel to consumers that elephant ivory is mammoth,” Lo says, noting that the potential for wrongdoing should still be monitored.
In the future, China’s implementation of stricter ivory regulations will likely increase market pressure on the prehistoric ivory stocks. Being able to tell the difference, then, becomes paramount. Sometimes the difference can be difficult to identify—especially in tusks that are heavily processed or scrimshawed with ink.
Mammoth tusks sometimes exhibit a rocky/mineralized exterior, discoloration from being underground, with denser consistency than elephant tusks. But this generalization does not always apply to high quality tusks gathered from the permafrost.
Likewise, tusks from adult male mammoths are generally larger with greater spiral curvature than African elephant tusks. “But this is not true of all mammoth tusks. Some very much resemble tusks of elephants,” says University of Michigan professor Daniel Fisher, one of the world’s foremost experts on mammoths and mammoth tusks. “There are, of course, juvenile mammoths whose tusks are not large at all, and female mammoths whose tusks do not show much spiral curvature.”
While forensic methods can certify a tusk as belonging to a mammoth, the procedures could damage the specimen or require specialized lab equipment. The most certain means of verification requires a polished cross-section of the tusk. Close inspection of such a surface reveals intersecting spiral curves called “Schreger lines.” Elephant tusks exhibit Schreger lines that intersect with an angle greater than 115 degrees, while mammoth tusks exhibit an angle of less than 90 degrees.
NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA Paleontologists estimate that at least 3,000 elephant fossils remain buried in the average square mile of Nebraska countryside.
Chinese Mammoth Ivory Dealers
Daniel Chan—the owner of Lise Carving & Jewellery in Hong Kong—claims to have first introduced mammoth ivory to the market.
“I began buying mammoth tusks from suppliers in Alaska and Canada in 1983. That was a very busy time for [elephant] ivory. In 1983, nobody wanted to use the prehistoric material, only me. I bought and kept it,” Chan says. “In the early ’90s, nobody was using this material. I was the first Hong Kong person to visit Moscow looking for mammoth tusks.”
In his Hong Kong factory/warehouse, several craftsmen are working at a long carving table. Whirring electrical tools spit ivory dust in the air as they carve Buddhist figures and trinkets from ancient material. There is even a baby mammoth skeleton in the corner of the room. It faces a mountain of mammoth tusks stored in shelves and piled on the floor.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Chan pioneered the supply chain from Siberia to Hong Kong via Moscow. Competition followed. Other ivory dealers moved into his market niche and demand for mammoth ivory steadily grew. Mainland Chinese smugglers buying direct from Siberia and transporting their stocks over the land border with Russia became a major annoyance, undercutting his business.
One of Chan’s peers, carving master Chu Chung-shing says, “I can carve on any materials. I don’t need to break the law to make a living.” Chu owns two upscale shops that exclusively sell mammoth tusk artwork in Hong Kong’s most popular tourist districts.
Chu’s Prestige Crafts storefronts glisten with ostentatious carvings, which stretch up and around gigantic, spiraling mammoth tusks. His work was exhibited at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, and he has had large exhibitions promoted by committees of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
Chan and Chu shared similar experiences in their search for elephant ivory alternatives.
“The ban was a huge blow to me. I even carved out of ox bone, but only for a short time. Everybody was trying something new after the ban,” Chu says, who eventually found an ideal substitute in mammoth ivory, even though the prehistoric tusks are denser and more prone to cracking than contemporary elephant tusks.
Both ivory insiders emphasize that any new ivory ban from the government should not impact the mammoth ivory trade because of the fundamental difference between the two products.
In Beijing, the China Association of Mammoth Ivory Art Research issues cards to authenticate mammoth ivory products, similar to the system mandated by the Chinese government for elephant ivory carvings. However, use of the mammoth registration cards is voluntary.
Chen Shu, the president of the association, maintains an extensive showroom of mammoth carving arts at his home. Large polished mammoth tusks join examples of historic schools of traditional Chinese ivory carving—from Canton ivory balls carved with impossibly intricate concentric spheres, to Beijing-style painted ivory carvings, and even delicate modern jewelry designs.
Many domestic buyers consider mammoth ivory to be a commodity investment, while others have used the expensive carvings to bribe or otherwise buy influence.
Chen watched prices skyrocket for prehistoric ivory in the past decade. The growth far outpaced changes in elephant ivory prices. He says raw elephant ivory increased from roughly 1,000-2,000 yuan per kilogram in 2003 to 8,000-12,000 yuan per kilogram in 2013; over the same timespan, raw mammoth tusks that once sold for hundreds of yuan rose in price to 30,000-40,000 yuan per raw kilogram.
In the summer of 2016, Chen says that the mammoth ivory market was experiencing a downturn following the central government’s anti-corruption campaign, a slowing Chinese economy, and the Sino-U.S. agreement to strengthen regulation of the world’s two largest markets for black market ivory.
NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA
One mastodon is discovered for every 10 mammoths in the state.
Regulation of Mammoth Ivory
Mammoth tusks occupy an awkward place between opposing views on the global ivory trade. In the view of Chinese traders, mammoth ivory is an alternative to African elephant ivory that sustains their traditional craftsmanship.
Many environmental activists, on the other hand, view the mammoth ivory trade as a means of sustaining a hated industry.
Currently, India is the only country to have banned the sale of mammoth ivory. In the United States, four states have bans on the sale and purchase of mammoth ivory: New York, New Jersey, California, and Hawaii.
Nevertheless, Esmond Martin, one of the world’s leading elephant conservationists has cited mammoth ivory as a possible beneficial alternative to elephant ivory (so long as mammoth carvings are produced on a large enough scale that they can be easily differentiated from elephant carvings). Unfortunately for mammoth traders who buy bulk quantities that often include fragments and lower-grade tusks, such scale is not always financially viable.
Mammoth ivory was recently addressed at the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties in South Africa from Sept. 24 through Oct. 5, when national representatives gathered to discuss the state of global wildlife regulations.
In response to the “indirect threat” to elephant populations through the potential for laundering, a draft resolution from Israel urged monitoring of specimens and new mammoth ivory regulations. But the CITES secretariat ruled against the resolution, in part, due to the anecdotal nature of evidence.
Evidence published during the prior year included a 10-month undercover investigation by the Elephant Action League in Hong Kong and Beijing. The undercover report claimed that the Beijing-based Beijing Mammoth Art Co. Ltd had manipulated its connections in Hong Kong to avoid Chinese ivory regulations.
Hong Kong’s environmental groups have mounted a vocal campaign against the territory’s ivory traders. A coalition of local school children protested the Chinese state-owned retail chain Chinese Arts & Crafts (which has outlets across the mainland and Hong Kong), and in 2014, the retailer responded with an announcement that it would sell only mammoth ivory. The commitment did not apply across mainland China, however; the Beijing arm of the company—an enormous shopping mall located near the historic city center—continued to sell both elephant and mammoth ivory products in summer of 2016.
“After the Hong Kong government bans elephant ivory in the new year, Hong Kong’s trade in mammoth ivory will also need a closer look,” says Alex Hofford, an environmental activist and WildAid wildlife campaigner, who alleges that prehistoric ivory trade is a “cynical laundering mechanism for freshly poached elephant ivory.”
NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA The sale or purchase of mammoth ivory is not regulated in the state of Nebraska.
A Precious Scientific Commodity
University of Michigan professor Daniel Fisher says that China’s mammoth ivory supply chain is cutting into a precious scientific resource.
“Tusks hold the history of a mammoth’s life,” Fisher says. “Tusks are highly specialized incisor teeth, and they grow by adding thin layers of material, only 10-20 microns thick, for every day of the animal’s life. The composition and density of new tusk material varies with the seasons, in an annual cycle, so that a tusk also ends up showing annual layers that are, in principle, something like the rings of a tree.”
Cross-sections of tusks analyzed under a microscope can reveal the mammoth’s reproductive cycles, daily behavior, and might even offer clues into the secrets of global warming through changes in the creature’s diet. “We’re also looking at how they responded to human expansion into the Arctic, so this is also a story of our history,” he says.
For the past 18 years, Fisher has made annual trips to study mammoth excavation sites in Siberia. While exploring the most desolate corners of the Russian tundra, he has traveled by helicopter, boat, reindeer sled, and even hovercraft. But most of his fieldwork is done on foot.
“In many cases, I was following in the footsteps of the ivory hunters, and they are getting all they can. Even if some ivory doesn’t fetch a prime price, it might be worth something, and they don’t leave much behind,” he says.
Sometimes the modern mammoth hunters discover tusks from places where ancient human hunters stored carcass parts. Removing specimens from these sites destroys the archeological context, which scientists could otherwise study. Sometimes, he says the Russian Academy of Sciences will flag tusks for scientific retention. But that’s still rare, and by the time they do, site-specific data is already lost.
Fisher’s research has taken him all over the world. Even Nebraska. In 2006, he examined the Crawford mammoths (then-housed at Morrill Hall in Lincoln). The fighting mammoths, locked in eternal battle, are now on display at Fort Robinson’s Trailside Museum in the northwestern corner of the state.
George Corner remembers Fisher’s visit, and he laments that most of the tusks recovered with Nebraska’s mammoths are in no suitable shape for carving.
“You don’t hear a lot about fossil ivory in Nebraska. Special conditions preserve the tusks, like the frozen permafrost of Alaska or Siberia,” Corner says. “If you were to pick up a tusk from the loess soil around Omaha, you would just have a pile of tusk fragments.”
NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA “We find elephant remains all the time in Nebraska. But it’s rare to find a skeleton or even a partial skeleton anymore. That’s because of a change in road construction practice. Instead of letting road cuts lay open, the Roads Department will immediately grass them over or seed them with hay. So, we don’t have a lot of time anymore to look at road cuts.”