In Half Shadow: Vietnam’s Role in Ivory Smuggling

Undercover investigation reveals country is a hub for a network of ‘loosely-structured,’ wildlife-trafficking syndicates.

The world cheered China’s agreement to ban the importation of ivory in 2017.  With its large population of very wealthy individuals and families, China has long been the major importer of raw ivory and ivory products.

But some groups, like the National Geographic, greeted news of the ban cautiously. NatGeo reporter, Jani Actman, explained how in 2008, China had lobbied CITES to be able to buy limited amounts of ivory while at the same time building the world’s largest ivory carving factory and opening shops to sell the goods. Others, like researcher and journalist Karl Amman, were completely sceptical. He went on to show that the trade persists in China, both covertly and overtly. Amman showed that consumers buy small items, easily concealed, indicating perhaps awareness of the crime but willingness to take the risk due to the implicit social status value of the product.

photo of Ivory bangle with a bullet embedded
A trader offers an ivory bangle with a bullet embedded in it to an undercover Environmental Investigation Agency agent. A two-year investigation by EIA has revealed that illegal ivory, as well as other contraband wildlife parts, like rhino horn, tiger skins, and pangolins scales are entering Vietnam at alarming rates, accelerating further declines in already-besieged populations of these animals. Photo courtesy of EIA.

Now another report based on an undercover operation carried out by the United Kingdom’s Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), offers an eye-opening and detailed account of the ongoing illicit trade in ivory and other endangered animal parts. It shows how neighboring Vietnam, continues to be a primary hub for illegal ivory that’s making its way into China.

The report, “Exposing the Hydra,” demonstrates clearly that Vietnamese syndicates operate with impunity across Africa, Vietnam, and neighbouring Asian countries. Illegal ivory, as well as other contraband wildlife parts, like rhino horn, tiger skins, and pangolins scales are entering Vietnam at alarming rates, accelerating further declines in already-besieged populations of these animals. Arrests are few and often do not result in strong sentences.

Based on two years of careful investigation, the EIA report reveals that a number of sophisticated, “loosely structured” criminal syndicates are trafficking wildlife from African nations into and through Vietnam, facilitated by systemic corruption in these countries. Higher-level members of the Vietnamese syndicates, for instance, boasted to undercover EIA agents about their connections with corrupt officials who facilitated the passage of their ivory shipments. For example, Teo Boon Ching, a “specialist transporter,” claimed to be able to smoothly move ivory through Johor in Malaysia because of his connections with senior customs officers.

 “Unlike the Chinese criminal groups EIA has previously investigated, the Vietnamese are prepared to be more ‘hands-on,’” the EIA report notes. “Sophisticated methods of concealment have been developed and deployed. Specialist transporters are used to move the goods (by air land and sea) along multiple routes [through major airports like Wattay in Lao’s capital Vientiane].  Corruption is a feature all along the trade chain and most syndicates deal in a variety of contraband wildlife.”

The ivory, often hidden in hollowed out timber or in wax encasings, is usually smuggled out of Mozambique to Malaysia and then flown to Laos from where it is be taken by road into Vietnam. Some of this ivory evidently stays around in Laos as well. In past few months, ivory products have reappeared in stores in the Lao capital, Vientiane, including one department store where it is openly displayed for visiting Chinese tourists and wealthy locals.

The syndicates deal in big money. Gang members told the undercover investigators that between January 2016 and November 2017 they had delivered at least 22 successful shipments of ivory from Africa, weighing around 19 tons (21.2 US tons), potentially netting them $14 million. All of this in spite of increased official surveillance and interceptions. Many of the shipments were disguised as timber or building materials.

The ivory transiting Vietnam is bought mainly by Chinese nationals, in the forms of jewellery or raw tusks, both in Vietnam itself as well in the ultimate destination for most of the ivory — China. Nhi Khe, a small village in northern Vietnam, near the country’s border with China, remains an important ivory hub. Nguyen Tien Son, an independent smuggler who operates out of Nhi Khe, claimed the village could sell up to 10 tons (11.2 US tons) of ivory a month, notes the report that was made public in September.

The link between China and ivory is an old one. Major evidence of significant ivory artworks have been found dating from the Shang Dynasty of 600 BC. The rise of the new nationalism under Xi Jinping has cemented ivory into an imagined Chinese imperial age of glory and status. Understanding this might go a long way to realising why we have not, and possibly will not, see the end of ivory poaching, importation, and use.

photo of ivory jewellery at a store in Laos
In the past few months, ivory products have reappeared in stores in the Lao capital, Vientiane, as well. Photo courtesy of Save the Elephants.

The consequences, of course, are dire. “Of course, the ivory trade will stop,” says a Vientiane, Laos-based law enforcement officer who did not want to be named. “All the elephants will be dead.”

While losing one of the world’s most iconic animals would be terrible, for ivory traders it would be a gift. Scarcity, as any trader knows, raises prices. Ivory prices plummeted soon after the China announced its ban, falling from over $2,000 per kilo to less than $600. But criminal syndicates operating out of Africa and Vietnam, who are using neighbouring countries like Malaysia and Laos as transition points, have pushed prices up again. Some would say the price hike is driven cynically by the threatened demise of the animal.

Researchers have found that in China, the status of owning an object made of an increasingly rare material has increased the demand. In a 2017 report, they found that many Chinese millennials (ages 15 to 29) intend to continue to buy ivory despite the ban. Chinese millennials, incidentally, outnumber the entire population of the US. Most of those surveyed by the researchers said the implicit status of both owning and increasingly rare ivory was the main attraction. As one of the Vietnamese syndicate members told the EIA: “Everyone wants money, but money is not everything. The brand name is more important.”

The EIA report identified and named some key players in the syndicates, but it admits that “there are many more involved and too many to include in this report.” What the investigators found is that each person in these syndicates is interchangeable with his or her colleagues, making these organizations fluid and responsive, and also hard to define and detect.

Though Vietnam banned ivory in 1992 it never fully clamped down on smuggling. International criticism, and playing host to a major international conference on wildlife crime in 2016, recently motivated the Vietnamese government to improve its enforcement response, such as introducing stronger penalties for traffickers. But strong sentencing of convicted cartel operatives is still hard to come by.

In April 2017, for example, Vietnamese authorities arrested Nguyen Mau Chien, head of a wildlife crime syndicate importing large amounts of rhino horn, ivory tusks, and pangolins from Africa and illegally trading in tigers. His sentence was derisory: 13 months jail. Journalist Rachel Nuwer, author of the new book Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking, reported Vietnamese police watching TV sitting next to a dealer openly discussing his activities.

That the EIA was able to penetrate and obtain vital information makes it  clear that these syndicates operate in only half shadow. The agency’s first contact was Phan Chi in November 2016. Based in South Africa on a “retirement” visa, Chi’s timber business provides the front necessary to enable illegal exports of ivory. He claimed to have 10 “soldiers” working for him in Mozambique, whose efforts enabled him to source up to 1.5 tonnes of ivory a month.

photo of Ivory stash viewed during the investigation
A stash of smuggled ivory viewed by undercover agents during the EIA's investigations. Photo courtesy of EIA.

In Hanoi, EIA made contact with Nguyen Tien Son, a prolific ivory trader with operations in East and West Africa. Son offered investigators the chance to buy eight separate batches of ivory tusks weighing a total of 10.5 tons (11.76 US tons). In October 2017, EIA was taken to a warehouse in Nhi Khe where 500 kg of tusks were stored after which they met two men specializing in transporting ivory from Africa to Vietnam via Laos.

In December 2017, EIA met with Malaysian national Teo Boon Ching and Vietnamese national Le Thi Thanh Hai in Ho Chi Minh City. Both were active smugglers. Teo enabled ivory and other wildlife products shipped to Johor to continue its onwards journey landing in Vientiane Laos by airfreight. Meeting the shipment in Laos, Hai then transported the contraband by land into Vietnam. It’s hard to imagine Lao customs officials and Forestry Inspectors who intercept shipments of smuggled birds and reptiles, could miss this far more significant cargo.

The EIA has reported its findings to officials in all countries mentioned in its investigation, and is currently waiting responses. The agency’s recommendations — to “conduct a thorough investigation into the information presented in this report, which was also previously provided as confidential briefing documents to enforcement authorities” — have “we know you know” inferences. Considering the amount of wildlife parts moving between these nations, it is hard to imagine they don’t. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article mispelled Rachel Nuwer's name as Rachel Newer. It also misstated the title of her book, which is Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking, not Poached: Inside the Dark World of Animal Trafficking.

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