China busts major ivory trafficking gang following EIA investigation

Xie, Ou and Wang in a meeting with the investigators in 2016

Image courtesy of EIA
  • In 2017, an undercover operation by the watchdog group Environmental Investigation Agency identified three men involved in smuggling elephant ivory from Africa to the little-known town of Shuidong in China, which, according to the trafficking syndicate, receives up to 80 percent of all illegal ivory from Africa.
  • Following EIA’s report, Chinese enforcement authorities raided several places in Shuidong and surrounding areas and arrested one of the three men who received a jail term of 15 years. A second member of the gang voluntarily returned to face trial and was jailed for six years.
  • The third identified member of the syndicate has also been repatriated to China from Nigeria under an INTERPOL Red Notice and will face trial in China.
  • In addition to these three men, enforcement actions have also led to the conviction of 11 suspects by the local court, with jail terms ranging from six to 15 years.

Chinese authorities have nabbed all three identified members of a major ivory trafficking syndicate first exposed by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) in 2017.

In its 2017 report, EIA had revealed that the little-known town of Shuidong in China was “the world’s largest hub” for the illegal trade in elephant ivory. The exposé was the result of three years of undercover operations during which EIA investigators infiltrated one of the Shuidong groups and detangled the syndicate’s modus operandi, from the methods the group used to source raw elephant tusks to shipping and selling the tusks in China and managing profits. According to the Shuidong group, up to 80 percent of all poached ivory that made its way to China from Africa was first smuggled to Shuidong.

EIA investigators identified three men from the syndicate — Ou Haiqiang, Xie Xingbang and Wang Kangwen — and shared their findings with the relevant Chinese enforcement authorities before the report’s publication. China’s Anti-Smuggling Bureau then raided several places in Shuidong and surrounding areas.

Wang Kangwen was arrested during the raid and received a jail term of 15 years. Xie Xingbang, based in Tanzania at that time, voluntarily returned to face trial, after which he was jailed for six years, EIA said in a statement.

“It is my understanding that Xie acted more like a fixer for the bosses of the syndicate, rather than being a leading member himself,” Julian Newman, EIA campaigns director, told Mongabay in an email. “For example he was paid a fee for his role in liaising with local ivory suppliers, rather than being an investor in the consignment himself like Wang (who got 15 years in jail).”

The third identified member, Ou Haiqiang, has also recently been caught, according to EIA. Ou was repatriated to China from Nigeria under an INTERPOL Red Notice and will face trial in China. His trial is likely to commence within the month or so, Newman said. In addition to these three men, enforcement actions have also led to the conviction of 11 suspects by the local court, with jail terms ranging from six to 15 years.

“We are very pleased to see such robust enforcement action taken by the Chinese authorities in response to the information provided by our investigators,” Newman added.

EIA’s report revealed that the city of Putian in China’s Fujian province is one of the main ivory carving centers in China. It’s also the chief market for the processing of raw ivory tusks smuggled by the Shuidong syndicates.

Following China’s ban on domestic ivory trade, which was intended to shut down all ivory carving factories and shops by the end of 2017, authorized ivory carving factories in Putian, too, should have all been closed by the start of 2018, according to Newman. “However it is possible that a latent underground ivory trade persists,” he said.

EIA’s investigation had also revealed a network of “corrupt rangers, customs officers, shipping agents, money changers, lawyers and local fixers” that were supporting the Shuidong groups. EIA identified some of these individuals, but they are based in different jurisdictions, such as Tanzania, Mozambique, South Korea, and Hong Kong, and “have not been apprehended by authorities in those countries as far as EIA is aware,” Newman said.

The Shuidong smugglers have been relentless in their pursuit of elephant ivory, EIA had noted in its report.

“With the profitability of tusks from East Africa falling, the Shuidong smugglers have moved into more profitable forest elephant ivory and pangolin scales,” the report said. “When enforcement improved in Tanzania, they shifted to neighbouring Mozambique. Their relentless criminal activities continue to be a major factor in the ongoing slaughter of elephants and other wildlife across Africa.”

Both Tanzania and Mozambique have been hit hard by elephant poachers: Between 2009 and 2014, Tanzania lost 60 percent of its elephant population while Mozambique lost 53 percent.