An 11-year jail sentence for a Vietnam-based wildlife trafficking “kingpin” and his associate has sent other illegal ivory traders packing, with many abandoning their operations into China, according to The Hague-based Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC).
Vietnam remains a key wildlife smuggling gateway for elephant ivory and rhino horn moving between Africa and China, but strict Chinese law enforcement is paying off, with a WJC report released on Wednesday showing a decline in the trade.
“[We] detected a drop in the demand for ivory among several Vietnamese networks, with some traffickers even warning our undercover operatives off ivory,” said the non-profit foundation’s executive director Olivia Swaak-Goldman.
“Others have indicated they were burying ivory while waiting to see what would happen in China,” she said.
“The old days have changed in Vietnam and traffickers know there is a risk of law enforcement, although several traffickers still claim to have the corrupt connections to protect them.”
Trading and processing of ivory have been banned in China since the end of 2017, but the WJC report detailed a three-year undercover investigation into a Hanoi-based broker who smuggled tonnes of elephant ivory and rhino horn, selling mostly to Chinese customers.
Between 2016 and 2019, WJC operatives found Nguyen Van Nam trafficked at least 17.6 tonnes of raw ivory and 477kg (1,050lbs) of rhino horn, valued at more than US$17 million in total. It equates to the killing of about 1,760 elephants and more than 106 rhinos.
Nguyen, 40, who went by the criminal alias “Ah Nam”, was arrested in 2019 during a transaction involving 204kg (450lbs) of African elephant tusks. He and his accomplice Duong Van Phong were each sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment.
Intelligence provided by WJC to authorities in Vietnam and China led to the arrest of at least 14 people in Ah Nam’s network in Vietnam, while 34 others were convicted in China for smuggling, buying, transporting or selling ivory, rhino horn or pangolin scales via Ah Nam, the report said.
The WJC said it shared intelligence on Ah Nam’s payment methods with authorities in Vietnam and China but the Vietnamese authorities did not carry out financial investigations to identify the illicit proceeds.
The broker used the same phone number and bank accounts for three years and met customers and criminal associates at the same seats at the same cafes, which the report said showed his confidence in impunity.
“Bringing high-level international traffickers of the likes of Ah Nam to justice is crucial to disrupt criminal networks and achieve the greatest impact, but it is no easy task: it took many attempts and the arrest of at least 12 other network members before they could finally reach him,” the report said.
Ah Nam traded mostly at the wholesale level in raw, unprocessed ivory and rhino horns sourced from partners in African countries, including South Africa, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria and Zambia.
The report said the ivory was painted black to look like charcoal or dark wood, to disguise it during shipment, or stained brown or coated in wax to make it appear antique.
Rhino horns were usually cut into smaller pieces and hand-carried by couriers in their luggage, while some larger horns would have been smuggled by air and sea cargo, it said.
According to the convicted wildlife traders, it was “impossible” to deliver ivory directly by air from Africa to Vietnam, which meant many of the smuggled tusks were sent via Malaysia.
Ah Nam and his associate Ah Phong told WJC operatives larger shipments were usually brought in to Vietnam through big seaports, such as Ho Chi Minh City and Hai Phong, before travelling by truck to Hanoi, the report said.
Ah Nam’s network used local vegetable and fruit traders as a cover to move the smuggled goods from Hanoi to Lang Son in the country’s far north, before taking them over the border to Pingxiang in China’s eastern Jiangxi province.
From there, they were shipped to other parts of China, including Guangxi, Fujian and Guangdong provinces, as well as Beijing and Hong Kong.
According to the report, the quoted prices for ivory and rhino horn sometimes included delivery by truck to China.