Environmental Investigation Agency
- Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA)
Surprising many, and putting other countries to shame, China has taken significant steps to close its legal domestic ivory market in the past year. This is a positive move by a country with one of the biggest ivory markets and demonstrates leadership and pragmatism. However, there remain serious questions on the lack of enforcement in China, and abroad, against Chinese nationals deeply involved in the illegal ivory trade, who continue to operate with complete impunity.
Following on from leads gathered in Tanzania in 2014, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) began investigating neighbouring Mozambique, a country whose elephant population has been devastated by poaching and the illegal ivory trade. What followed was beyond anything EIA could have anticipated.
The investigation in Mozambique revealed a Chinese-led criminal syndicate which for over two decades has been trafficking ivory from Africa to Shuidong, its hometown in southern China. According to this syndicate, it is just one of about 10 to 20 similar groups originating from Shuidong. Their criminal exploits reveal how their small hometown has become, and remains, the world’s largest hub for ivory trafficking: the group claims up to 80 per cent of tusks from poached elephants in Africa pass through Shuidong.
Over the course of more than a year, discussions with the traffickers gave an unprecedented insight into the methods used to source, ship and sell raw tusks, and to manage profits. They provided fascinating detail on the significance of Shuidong in global illegal ivory flows.
Since supplanting Chinese gangs from Fujian as the main raw ivory traffickers more than a decade ago, the Shuidong syndicates have remained untouched by any enforcement action in China or abroad. Although some ivory shipments have been intercepted, the only loss is financial and the groups have developed various mechanisms for limiting this risk.
By being flexible and adaptable, the Shuidong syndicate is relentless in its pursuit of profit from wildlife crime. With the profitability of tusks from East Africa falling, the Shuidong smugglers have moved into more profitable forest elephant ivory and pangolin scales. When enforcement improved in Tanzania, they shifted to neighbouring Mozambique. Their relentless criminal activities continue to be a major factor in the ongoing slaughter of elephants and other wildlife across Africa.
Without enforcement action against organised criminal networks, elephants and other wildlife will continue to be threatened by the illegal wildlife trade. The Shuidong syndicates in China and Africa need to be investigated and prosecuted urgently. Continued inaction against groups such as these, undermines China’s announcement to close its legal domestic ivory market and will render it futile in the fight against elephant poaching.
Specific policy and enforcement recommendations are included at the end of this report. Actionable information from this investigation has been shared with the relevant enforcement authorities.