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The Chinese Town at the Center of the Global Illegal Ivory Trade

The Chinese government has said it will rein in the smuggling and illegal sale of ivory, but those enforcement efforts do not appear to have reached the town of Shuidong.
An elephant in Tsavo East National Park in southern Kenya on January 31st, 2013.

An elephant in Tsavo East National Park in southern Kenya on January 31st, 2013.

When China announced at the end of 2016 that it would close its domestic ivory market within a year, the news was hailed as a "game changer" for African elephants, whose numbers are being driven down across the continent by poachers eager to meet the demand for ivory.

The Chinese government said it would rein in the smuggling and illegal sale of ivory through tougher law enforcement, among other measures—but those enforcement efforts do not appear to have reached the town of Shuidong in Guangdong Province.

According to a report recently released by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, Shuidong is "the world's largest hub for ivory trafficking," home to a network of criminal syndicates that have come to dominate the trade in illegal ivory poached from elephants in East and West Africa.

"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," the EIA notes in the report.

One of the illegal ivory traffickers told the EIA's undercover investigators that he estimated as much as 80 percent of all poached ivory smuggled out of Africa and into China goes through Shuidong.

"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," Mary Rice, executive director of the EIA, said in a statement accompanying the report. "What [the] 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."

The EIA's investigators spent nearly three years following up on leads gathered in Tanzania that pointed to neighboring Mozambique as a country where elephant poachers and ivory smugglers are focusing their efforts. "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," the report states. "According to this syndicate, it is just one of about 10 to 20 similar groups originating from Shuidong."

After learning of the Shuidong syndicates' role in the illegal ivory trade, the undercover investigators spent over a year collecting information on the tactics used by the criminal gangs to manage their illicit business, from bribing customs and border enforcement officials to look the other way to hiding tusks in shipments of plastic pellets and concealing the origin of ivory shipments by routing them through transit countries like South Korea.

The syndicates aren't just staying ahead of law enforcement officials, however—they're also adjusting their tactics on the fly as conditions on the ground and the demand for illegal animal products evolve.

"By being flexible and adaptable, the Shuidong syndicate is relentless in its pursuit of profit from wildlife crime," the EIA reports. "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 neighboring Mozambique. Their relentless criminal activities continue to be a major factor in the ongoing slaughter of elephants and other wildlife across Africa."

The illegal trade in ivory is contributing to precipitous declines in African elephant populations. A two-year survey by the Great Elephant Census found that 144,000 savanna elephants have been lost in Africa since 2007, which represents a decline of 8 percent per year. And a 2013 study found that Africa's forest elephant populations dropped by a staggering 60 percent over the previous decade.

Tanzania and Mozambique are both considered to be hotspots of elephant poaching. The EIA cites data showing that the two countries are representative of the overall elephant population trends on the African continent: Tanzania lost 60 percent of its elephant population and Mozambique lost 53 percent between 2009 and 2014, according to the report.

The authors of the EIA report recommend that the governments of Tanzania and Mozambique take steps to combat ivory trafficking at exit ports and share any information they might uncover through their own investigations with Chinese authorities. Recommendations for China include launching a multi-agency investigation to disrupt the networks involved in the illegal trade of animal parts; using a range of tax, anti-money laundering, anti-corruption, and organized crime laws to prosecute the criminal syndicates; and coordinating with source and transit countries to collect evidence of Chinese nationals working for the syndicates.

The "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," Julian Newman, the EIA's campaigns director, said in a statement. "Action is needed to end this huge criminal enterprise which is devastating Africa's elephant populations."

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.