The Town at the Heart of China’s Black Market in Ivory

Last year, in response to mounting criticism for its key role in the steep decline in the world’s elephant population, China announced that it would ban ivory trading and shutter all of the country’s 177 licensed ivory processing companies and retail shops by the end of 2017. China’s legal ivory market, worth about U.S.$600 million, cloaks the sale of illegal ivory, as illegal materials mix in with legal and the two are sold together without distinction. Authorities ordered 67 formerly legal ivory businesses to cease activity in March, and the remaining businesses will no longer be allowed to operate after December.

In July, however, the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA)—an organization with a long-standing reputation for exposing environmental crimes through undercover investigations—warned that these efforts could be in vain if they didn’t include a crackdown on the small Chinese coastal town of Shuidong. Shuidong, located 208 miles from Hong Kong, in Guangdong, is best known for its seafood markets. But according to the EIA, it is also a major global center for ivory smuggling. Multiple smugglers who spoke to EIA investigators estimated that 80 percent of all ivory from poached elephants in Africa passes through Shuidong, making the town, EIA experts believe, the world’s top destination for illicit ivory.

EIA uncovered Shuidong’s critical role in the ivory trade gradually. In 2014, EIA investigators met Wei Ronglu, a Shuidong native living in Zanzibar. He explained how people from his hometown smuggled ivory. Acting on rumors that ivory-smuggling syndicates were shifting their activity from Tanzania to Mozambique, EIA investigators traveled to Pemba in 2016 and approached a Shuidong trafficking group, masquerading as potential buyers. After winning the smugglers’ trust, investigators started to gather evidence, some of which is shown in this video as undercover footage.

Shuidong smugglers only work with close family members and friends, and one estimates that there are more than 10 lineage-based trafficking networks that originate in the town. The three smugglers identified in the report are “second-generation”; their families have been in business for more than 20 years without having their goods confiscated even once. These smugglers told EIA that despite China’s new rules, they have no intention of stopping—rather, they plan on expanding their business to include the more highly valued ivory of forest elephants in West and Central Africa, whose tusks are worth U.S.$900 per kilogram, compared with U.S.$750 per kilogram for the tusks of savanna elephants. Forest elephants are headed toward extinction, with fewer than 100,000 left in the wild.

EIA also discloses a key smuggling route that runs from Pemba, Mozambique, to Busan, South Korea, then Hong Kong, Shanghai, and finally Shuidong. This intentionally circuitous route, paired with the underground business’ inherent secrecy, will require a multi-national and multi-institutional effort to shut down. Now, the question is whether China will participate in those efforts in a way that will give its ban real teeth.

Muyi Xiao