Illicit rhino horn flows into China
Poor Vietnamese haul it across the mountains
EVERY day, in the mountainous reaches of Vietnam, old women trudge over well-worn paths on the border to China, carrying as much as 6kg of illicit rhino horn and ivory on their backs.
“They don’t pass customs,” one well-informed rhino horn trader told Elephant Action League (EAL) investigators. “There are people who wait at the foothill to load the goods onto vehicles.”
It’s an income for these impoverished families living on the Chinese-Vietnamese border “who use the smuggling business to support themselves and their families”.
This is one of the major findings of a new, wide-ranging investigative report from the EAL, a US-based non-profit, which it describes as the first undercover investigation by an NGO into rhino horn trafficking in China in decades.
The report, “Grinding Rhino – An Investigation into Rhino Horn Trafficking in China and Vietnam” – which was released yesterday, is the result of an 11-month investigation, dubbed Operation Red Cloud, comprising “many undercover missions in China and Vietnam”.
It got under way in August to “target the latter part of the rhino horn supply chain” – China and Vietnam.
This is because the EAL says that while a wealth of information exists on the illegal rhino trade in Vietnam, far less is known about China’s rhino horn trade.
“There have not been any investigations into the rhino horn trade in China in decades, so it was extremely important to get a current and clear picture of the market,” according to the report.
“We found that China’s demand for rhino horn is pervasive with no sign of waning, that rhino horn is present and available for sale throughout China, and that government officials, including Chinese Army and Navy commanders, may be involved in the trade as traffickers and buyers,” explains Andrea Crosta, the EAL’s executive director. “We recorded this information during a meeting with a well-informed rhino horn trader.”
The report details how one seasoned rhino horn dealer, with a position at the local Association of Collectors, alleged prior involvement with commanders in the Chinese military.
“They used him to identify authentic wildlife products (such as rhino horn) for them to purchase, as well as allowed the Chinese navy fleet to pick up and carry wildlife contraband back to China,” finds the report.
The consumer demand for rhino horn in China and Vietnam is “creating extraordinary economic incentives” for poaching and trafficking in African countries, commanding as much as $60 000/kg.
“Most high-crime smuggling occurs via mountain and land routes, but moving goods across the border by boat is still common in many areas.”
Smugglers tend to use individuals to transport contraband across the border because individuals can more easily pass through without inspection or detection. The probe also reveals how dealers pay $7.35 to children aged 10-15 to smuggle products through ports, too, because “children can avoid jail time by paying a small fine”.
The EAL’s investigation finds the black market for rhino horn is alive and well in China. “The investigative team was able to find available horn in nearly every location visited.”
Among its key trends is that the rhino horn trade “is an extremely complex web of traffickers, transporters, wholesale dealers and traders, making law enforcement incredibly difficult for local, national and international authorities”.
Rhino horn and other wildlife contraband generally moves from Vietnam to the Guangzi or Yunnan provinces and then to China’s primary retail markets including Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang and Beijing, the report finds.