At first sight, the Café del Mar looks like any other expensive restaurant situated on the Angolan capital's fashionable Ilha de Cabo; another beach club popular with expats. But there's a different reason why the foreigners keep coming. A small but well-stocked curio kiosk beside the entrance displays neat rows of ivory carvings. "Yes, we're very popular," says the owner. "Here is our Angolan ivory," she says, waving her hand towards the cluster of white statues behind her: "But it's becoming harder to get."
Her concern is well-founded. Some 12,000 elephants are killed annually in Africa for ivory, mainly to serve American, European and now increasingly Chinese markets.
"There is a real danger that our elephants will become extinct if we don't stop the trade," says Vladimir Russo, one of the country's foremost wildlife experts. Since the end of its 27-year civil war in 2002, Angola has fast emerged as a regional hub in the illegal trade in African elephant ivory buoyed by rising consumer demand from the Far East. "There are more Chinese workers in Africa. They have money, so they buy the ivory curios. But there is potential for more [foreigners] to come - and a really big market," explains Russo.
In 1981, there were some 12,400 elephants in Angola. Now, there are said to be 246. Tom Milliken, director of the group Traffic in east and southern Africa, says the illegal ivory trade has doubled during the past year."All the ivory traded through these local markets is coming from illicit sources. The war continues for elephants."
The Mercado do Artesanato is situated in the seaside town of Benfica, a short drive from Luanda. About 90 per cent of illegal ivory products observed in Angola in 2006, according to a joint WWF/Traffic report, was located at the market. By the time I arrive at midday, there's already a crowd of foreigners bartering for artefacts.
The ivory isn't hard to spot. As you first walk in, visitors are greeted by the sight of two giant tusks set in stone. "Some of it comes from Angola and some from the Congo, but the artist lives nearby," says Bemvinda, owner of the tusks and the multitude of ivory carvings surrounding them. "Ivory is popular, but expensive," he adds. Ivory is indeed good business. Raw ivory is relatively easy to acquire for vendors, with prices ranging from US$35 to US$100 per kilo, but the final price at the market is several times that amount. Among the items on display are ivory chopsticks: "They're for the Chinese. I sell a lot of them," Bemvinda says.
In a poor country traumatised by war, protecting animals comes low on the list of priorities: "Illegal markets expand when business is booming and government authorities look the other way," says Milliken.
But if Angola's elephants disappear, so do the chances of the country cashing in on future tourism revenues. "Some visitors buy ivory - but without our wildlife how can we grow tourism?" says Russo: "In the long term, the problem is how to define our priorities."