An undercover investigation has revealed how a single small Chinese town has become the world’s largest hub for illegal ivory trafficking. The anonymous settlement in the backwaters of southern China has silently developed into a major center for smuggling ivory from Africa, with up to 20 criminal gangs now operating in the town with seeming impunity.
Undercover filming by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has shown in stark terms how the town of Shuidong, Guangdong province, has emerged as the world’s hub for ivory trafficking. They estimate that out of all the poached ivory illegally exported from Africa, roughly 80 percent of it goes through Shuidong alone. This is an extraordinary finding, highlighting the town’s global significance in the illegal trade in wildlife.
The unprecedented investigation, published in a report titled “The Shuidong Connection”, the EIA detail how they spent three years looking into, infiltrating, and building up an astonishingly detailed picture of how the criminal gangs and syndicates operate out of Shuidong. And they found a terrifyingly efficient and adaptable system, with a single group sending 20 shipments of ivory in a single year.
As authorities cracked down on ivory being shipped from Tanzania, they simply moved operations to Mozambique. When the value of ivory from East Africa crashed in China, the crime syndicates diversified and branched out into pangolin scales, while at the same time shifting focus to the more lucrative trade in ivory from forest elephants. Rather than having shipments arrive directly from Mozambique, the tusks – concealed in containers of plastic pellets – were instead routed through South Korea first.
They found that the criminal gangs were taking their profits and simply reinvesting them back into the illegal wildlife trade, and had been working out of Shuidong for the last 10 years seemingly without fear of being caught, bribing officials along the way.
The investigation into the illegal trade of ivory comes during a year in which the Chinese government has made great strides – and in many cases put other countries to shame – in tackling the ivory market. They have already shut down government-sponsored ivory carving factories, and aim to close the nation’s legal domestic market by the end of the year. This is a tougher stance on the trade than most thought China would take, and much stronger than many other countries.
“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,” explained the EIA’s Executive Director, Mary Rice. “ 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.”