BEIJING (Reuters) - China's small traditional trade in carving uses ivory acquired through legal auctions and in no way encourages or worsens the problem of elephant poaching in Africa, a senior Chinese official said on Tuesday.
Demand for ivory as an ornamental item is soaring in Asia and especially in China, driven by the rising purchasing power of the region's newly affluent classes as well as growing Chinese investment in Africa and demand for its resources.
That has led to an increase in the illegal slaughter of African elephants for their ivory, with some wildlife groups estimating that over 90 percent of the ivory on sale in China is illegally sourced.
But Yan Xun, chief engineer of the wildlife conservation department under the State Forestry Administration, said it was unfair to blame China for the rise in poaching.
"Has China's legal ivory trade caused the poaching of wild elephants? I don't think there's necessarily a connection," he told a news briefing.
"The reasons for poaching wild elephants around the world are very complex, including competition for resources between people and elephants, livelihood issues for local people, war and ... the mistaken belief ivory generates huge profit margins."
China only permits 37 companies to work with ivory and 145 to sell the finished product. They use no more than a total of 5,000 kg of legal ivory every year, he said.
"I'd like to say that the Chinese ivory trade is mainly to hand down the art of exquisite carvings using ivory. This is not any ordinary trade," Yan added.
"The Chinese government has been paying great attention to the protection of elephants and we legally source ivory through international auctions," he said, adding China has to date sourced some 60 metric tons (66 tons) of ivory this way.
Convicted ivory smugglers can be jailed for life, Yan said.
While China has shown no sign of banning the ivory trade, Thailand's prime minister said earlier this year that her country would do so, promising legislation that could help the country avoid international trade sanctions after criticism by environmental groups.
China is the world's largest illegal ivory market, followed by Thailand, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature.
(Reporting by Sally Huang and Ben Blanchard, editing by Elaine Lies and Ron Popeski)