London investigators say obscure Chinese town is world’s biggest hub for illegal ivory
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London investigators say obscure Chinese town is world’s biggest hub for illegal ivory

INVESTIGATORS from London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) have discovered how a little-known town in southern China has become a global hub – the world’s biggest, in fact – for the smuggling of ivory tusks poached from African elephants.

Following what it describes as an “exhaustive investigation” spanning three years, the EIA said a syndicate member told undercover investigators that Shuidong town in Guangdong province is the destination for a staggering 80 percent of all poached ivory smuggled into China from Africa.

Shuidong, EIA said, 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.

After years of painstaking undercover work during which investigators infiltrated one of the leading syndicates, the EIA detailed the inner-workings of the syndicate in its new report entitled, The Shuidong Connection: Exposing the global hub of the illegal ivory trade.

SEE ALSO: Helping and harming: Asia’s complex relationship with elephants 

In its investigation, the EIA tracked a shipment of more than two tonnes of tusks from northern Mozambique to Shuidong. The investigation, it said, provided insights into the workings of an active ivory smuggling ring.

EIA Executive Director Mary Rice said the smuggling of ivory was still rampant in China 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.

Rice said although they had been identified in the past, the smuggling group was still active until late June 2017, extending its operations to West Africa to source lucrative tusks poached from forest elephants.

“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,” Rice said in a statement.

“What EIA discovered in Shuidong, however, clearly shows transnational criminal networks are operating with near-total impunity.”

Rice added it was vital that enforcement agencies in Africa and China “put these criminals out of business immediately.”

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Customs officers stand guard in front of confiscated ivory in Dongguan, southern Guangdong province in 2014. Source: AP

The EIA said its first encounter with the Shuidong smugglers was in September 2014 during an investigation into elephant poaching in Tanzania.

In Zanzibar, the main gateway for shipments of tusks flowing out of Tanzania, the EIA found that a single group from the syndicate had sent out 20 shipments of ivory tusks 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,” the EIA said.

“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.”

SEE ALSO: New Year Resolution: China aims to axe ivory trade by end of 2017

As a result of improved enforcement efforts and prosecutions, the EIA in April 2016 found that ivory traffickers were switching their focus from Tanzania to Mozambique.

In Pemba, a port town, the EIA said investigators posed as potential ivory traders and logistics specialists and gradually gained the trust of the syndicate partners.

Over the span of a year, investigators found African-based “fixers” who consolidated ivory shipments in secure locations as well as key Chinese syndicate players travelling to Africa to inspect tusks for quality.

The EIA also alleged key customs and border enforcement personnel, as well as freight agents, had taken bribes to turn a blind eye to the illegal activity.

Julian Newman, EIA Campaigns Director, said: “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.

Newman added action is needed to end the criminal enterprise which is “devastating Africa’s elephant populations.”