The Chinese that smuggles ivories


China Dialogue

Date Published

What kind of Chinese people participated in the ivory trade in Africa ? How do they do ivory smuggling ? Huang XiangWang investigated it in Mozambique, drawing a detailed picture.

October 30, 2013, the Chinese custom in Xiamen seized 12 tons of ivory, which is worth 600 million yuan and is the biggest ivory smuggling case in China’s history. Coincidentally,November 3 the same year, in Tanzania 1.8 tons of ivory was found in a Chinese family, causing African media uproar. According to New York Times and many international experts, it is estimated that the Chinese market is responsible for 70 percent of the global ivory trade.
1. The souvenir-purchasing level
Dong was working at a Chinese telecommunications company. On a Saturday, he was sent to Mozambique on a business trip. He came to weekly “June 25 Market Square” and shot a congratulation short video to his soon-to-be-married family member. Subsequently, he bought several bracelets made of ivory. In the video, he said, “You see , I am now in the largest ivory market in Mozambican capital Maputo and I will bring back some really good stuff!”
This market has very diverse handicrafts for sale from African fabric painting, wood carving, shell drawer, small ore-made ??jewelry. However, for Chinese customers, this market is known only as “ivory market”.
“What are you looking for? Ivory? ‘Dark wood’? “We have them in stock and they are inexpensive!” Upon seeing Chinese, the local venders expressed their enthusiasm and tried their best to draw their attention by speaking several Chinese words or short sentences. There is always a big cardboard box in their stand, which is full of merchandizes made of  ivory. Generally speaking, they’re willing to demonstrate those items to only Chinese because almost all ivory merchandizes were bought by Chinese while European or American customers show little interest. Aside from ivory, Chinese buyers are interested in the merchandizes made of dark-wood, which is a precious hardwood that takes a long growing time. Years ago, ivory products are openly traded. Today, however, following the public awareness of opposing the ivory trade, they descend into the black market. 
Li is an employee of a Chinese oil company and has been staying in Maputo for two years. In the local market, he taught his new colleagues the trick of taking home the bracelet made of small pieces of ivory: “We simply cut down the string and hide the small pieces in our luggage. We tried to take home as many pieces as possible. We can put them together into a ivory-piece-bracelet when we arrive at home.” “For each trip, it’s safe to carry less than one or two kilograms”. There will be no problem in Mozambique. If it is found in Chinese customs, just give them up. They are very cheap in Mozambique anyway.
Chen is an employee of a Chinese construction company. He has been here in Maputo for over an year. He goes to the ivory market every week and purchases the ivory of the best quality. He showed the journalist his collection, including ivory bracelets, chopsticks and seals.
This is the most general type of Chinese people participating in the ivory trade in Africa: the souvenir-purchasing level. Whether expatriate through Chinese companies or the immigrants of having small business in Africa, many of them bring back small amount of ivory products when returning home. Ivory products are very inexpensive in here. A pair of bracelets cost RMB 400 or 500 but will cost up to 10,000 in Chinese black market. In Asia, a kilogram of ivory costs 3,000 US dollars whereas in Mozambique the local going rate is  as low as 300 US dollars. The price is not much higher in Maputo even after several rounds of distribution and trades. 
A large number of Chinese individuals purchase the ivory products, not only because there are up to a hundred times of profit, but also because the risk is extremely low. “Theoretically, ivory hand-made goods can be traded legally locally but cannot be exported.”, said one staff of Quirimbas National Park in northern Mozambique. 
2. Cargo Container level
“Souvenir-purchasing level” should not be underestimated. Even though a single person can only purchase a small amount, the large influx of Chinese people into Africa is enough to form a huge market. However, compared to the individual souvenir buyers, some Chinese are participating in the smuggling of a much larger scale.
Northern Mozambique is one of the places where elephant poaching mainly took place. There are many Chinese businessmen in the major port city, Pemba. Most of them are working in the lumber industry and they ship the local woods in cargo containers back to China. Based on the investigation conducted by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) in 2011, many Chinese lumber companies participated in the smuggling. Those companies did not log themselves but acquired cheap woods locally, whether the source is legitimate. Then they ship them back to China through the cargo containers and occasionally smuggle other products. In 2011 in Pemba, 126 elephant tusks, 1 rhino horn and several pangolin scales were found in the cargo container owned by a Chinese company named Tien-he. It was sentenced by the local court to compensate its collaborated local company MITI 3.5 millions US dollars and Tien-He was closed in Aug 2013.
Deva is one of the business partners of MITI. He repeated claimed to the media that MITI did not participate in the Chinese’s ivory business. He felt angry for his Chinese business partners: “although I did not have evidences, I know that it’s not just my Chinese business partner that smuggled the ivory among the woods in the cargo containers. Many Chinese did that!”
Most Chinese small companies operate in a gray area and know how to do business with the corrupt governmental officials. When I visited a Chinese lumber company in Pemba, two Mozambican people in uniform, one male and one female, were sitting in the office and watching Chinese TV soap operas. A Chinese young person said, “One of them is a custom official whereas the other is a policeman. They’re supposed to come and monitor the process of packing the woods into the cargo container. Instead, they came here watching TV and taking bribe.”
“The reason that the company Tien-he got caught is that they did not bribe comprehensively. They want to save a little money but turned out spend a lot on the penalty,” said Chou, a manager from another Chinese lumber company in Pemba. He also claimed that his company is the one that follows the local law the mostly among the local Chinese companies. However, when I did search on Internet, I found that his company got caught several times smuggling timbers and named by the local media “incorrigible”.
It is the small elites that participate in the smuggle. In Kenya, a Chinese company owner told me: “many ivories were shipped back to China through “diplomatic channel”, instead of business channel.” The so-called diplomatic channel refers to the individual corrupt Chinese government officials smuggle the ivory by taking diplomatic plane without going through customs. It usually involves more senior diplomatic officials and thus there are very few that got caught.
On June 2013 , the Chinese Xinhua News Agency reported that a Chinese diplomat and a military officer were arrested in Zambia on suspicion of carrying 27kg of ivory, which was valued $140,000. The detailed identities of the two smugglers were not mentioned.
I consulted Chinese Embassy in Mozambique and got the reply: “The vast majority of Chinese citizens comply with Mozambican laws but I cannot rule out the possibility of individuals engaged in the illegal ivory trade. The Chinese Embassy will continue educating our citizens on this topic.”
3. Corruption and victims
In Africa , some Chinese people benefit themselves from the loopholes of the legal system.  It does not mean that in general Chinese cannot tell between right and wrong.
“Africans really want to make money like crazy.” commented by a Chinese employee in Pemba on a picture of pangolin on his Internet social website. It was what the locals catch in order to sell to Chinese. Most Chinese in Pemba at least eat once bush meats from pangolin or other wildlife because they’re cheap. They’re aware of the fact that they are protected animals but sometimes they despise the locals because of these acts.
“African will do whatever we want them to do if given enough money. They have no dignity and have no social responsibility,” said Chou, a Chinese lumber company owner in Pemba. Like other Chinese, he also told me many sad stories how corrupt the government officials and policemen are, how bureaucratic and inefficient the government agencies work and how frequent the robbery and other crimes happen. In the eyes of most Chinese, they are the victims of the “dark continent”, though they have learned how to maximize their own benefits.
“There are less and less timber because of over-logging. Eventually it is not sustainable economically. We’re ready to switch to farming, “said Chou. He has dealt with Mozambican government officials many times and knows well the Mozambican political situation. According to him, in the following presidential election, there are two candidates: one is very corrupt while the other ethical. 
Chou added: “If the ethical one wins, then this country is getting better but it will be more difficult to do lumber business. Moreover, China’s regulation and legal system is more and more stringent. We need to decide our business strategy based on the rapid change of our economic situation.”