An exhaustive investigation has revealed how criminal gangs originating from an obscure town in southern China have come to dominate the smuggling of illegal ivory tusks poached from African elephants.
Shuidong town is home to a network of ivory trafficking syndicates whose reach extends to East and West Africa, including the elephant poaching hotspots of Tanzania and Mozambique.
One syndicate member told undercover investigators that Shuidong is the destination for a staggering 80 per cent of all poached ivory smuggled into China from Africa.
A new report, The Shuidong Connection: Exposing the global hub of the illegal ivory trade, by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) is the culmination of almost three years of painstaking undercover work during which investigators infiltrated one of the leading syndicates. This involved tracking a shipment of more than two tonnes of tusks from northern Mozambique to Shuidong, providing unique insights into the workings of an active ivory smuggling gang.
EIA first encountered the Shuidong smugglers in September 2014 while investigating the catastrophic poaching of elephants in Tanzania. In Zanzibar, the main gateway for shipments of tusks flowing out of Tanzania, EIA met with a sea cucumber trader from Shuidong who revealed that a community of his compatriots in Zanzibar was behind the smuggling, with a single group sending out 20 shipments to China in just one year.
They formed part of an international network of people from Shuidong supplying the booming Chinese market for sea cucumbers; with their knowledge of working in Africa and supply routes to China, their presence in strategic coastal towns and their business cover, the Shuidong traders in East and West Africa were ideally positioned to move into the illegal ivory trade.
In April 2016, EIA investigators travelled to Mozambique to ground-truth rumours that ivory traffickers were switching their focus from Tanzania as a result of improved enforcement efforts and prosecutions. In the port town of Pemba, they encountered a group of three Chinese nationals who were conspicuous because of their unique dialect – they were all from Shuidong.
Posing as potential ivory traders and logistics specialists, the investigators gradually gained the trust of the syndicate partners; over the course of more than a year and through multiple meetings, they were able to piece together a detailed picture of the enormous scale and nature scale of the operations, which involves:
- engagement of trusted Africa-based fixers to consolidate shipments of poached ivory in secure locations;
- key Chinese syndicate players travelling to Africa to inspect tusks for quality and, subsequently, to African ports to remotely observe loading onto vessels;
- bribing key customs and border enforcement personnel as well as freight agents;
- concealing tusks in innocuous-looking shipments of plastic pellets;
- using historically secure smuggling routes dotted with accomplices at every stage, known as 'owning the road';
• obscuring the origin of shipping containers of ivory by sending them to be reloaded in transit countries such as South Korea;
- the ability to swiftly diversify into other illegal wildlife products such as pangolin scales, totoaba fish maw and rhino horn as demand and supplies varied
- continuously re-investing criminal profits into new ivory and other wildlife shipments.
Despite the Chinese Government's laudable decision to close its domestic ivory market, leading to a fall in price for ivory tusks in the country, the smuggling group was still active as of late June 2017, extending its operations to West Africa to source lucrative tusks poached from forest elephants.
Mary Rice, EIA Executive Director, said:
"The Chinese Government's decision to shut its domestic ivory market by the end of 2017 is an admirable response to mounting international pressure to end the industrial-scale slaughter of Africa's elephants. What EIA discovered in Shuidong, however, clearly shows transnational criminal networks are operating with near-total impunity. It is vital that enforcement agencies in Africa and China put these criminals out of business immediately."
Julian Newman, EIA Campaigns Director, added:
"EIA has shared, in confidence, the detailed intelligence unearthed during the course of the Shuidong investigation with relevant Government departments and enforcement agencies and looks to them to use it. Action is needed to end this huge criminal enterprise which is devastating Africa's elephant populations."