Global delegates and campaigners are gathering in Geneva this week for a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, known as CITES. The trade in ivory is high on the agenda as poaching continues to hit elephant populations across parts of Africa. Campaigners want tougher enforcement of regulations to tackle organized criminal gangs behind the trade.
The United Nations estimates the illegal wildlife trade is worth $23 billion per year, with much of that value coming from ivory.
Asia, and especially China, is by far the biggest market.
The London-based Environmental Investigation Agency spent three years infiltrating one of the major smuggling syndicates shipping ivory from east African ports. Investigators identified the southern Chinese town of Shuidong as the major hub for poached ivory, they say 80 percent of ivory destined for China passes through the town.
“[Shuidong] has emerged as probably the biggest hub in the world for the illegal trade of ivory tusks. We first came across the footprints of this group in Tanzania in 2014. The country has lost half its elephants in five years, the biggest loss in Africa,” said Julian Newman, the agency’s campaign director.
As Tanzania began to clamp down on smuggling, the gangs moved to Mozambique. Investigators secretly recorded one of the traffickers, named as "Xie", describing the trade through the Mozambican port of Pemba.
Xie boasted that he is able to move anything through Pemba. He said all the authorities there have been bought off and the customs clearance agent, the customs also gets a share of the money.
Newman said smugglers are operating with impunity.
“There were a few cases where they had some tusks seized. But they were never arrested. And they saw these seizures as a business expense,” said Newman.
Earlier this month, $10 million-worth of ivory was seized in Hong Kong. China plans to ban the trade by the end of 2017.
But John Sellar, former chief enforcement officer at CITES, told VOA via Skype there is too much focus on the trade and not enough on the criminals involved.
“There is speculation involved here, there is undoubtedly money-laundering to my mind. This is a much more complex issue. Organized criminal networks are now major players in all forms or many forms of wildlife trafficking. And you need to bring an organized law enforcement response to that,” said Sellar.
Without that enforcement, campaigners warn the poaching of ivory will likely continue, until the criminal networks are investigated and broken down.