Il­licit rhino horn flows into China

Poor Viet­namese haul it across the moun­tains

The Star Early Edition - - POLITICS - SHEREE BEGA

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.

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