Over 11 months, EAL investigators posed as potential buyers and identified 55 ‘persons of interest’ involved in the trade of rhino horn.
The group mapped out the routes by which rhino horn – valued at tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram – arrives in China.
Recorded conversations during the investigation allude to the fact that dealers and traders understand that rhinos face the threat of extinction.
The trade in rhino horn is still flourishing in China and other parts of Asia, despite a worldwide squeeze on the illegal trafficking of wildlife, according to a report by the Elephant Action League (EAL) released today.
“It is too easy to find rhino products in China,” said Andrea Crosta, leader of the effort and executive director of EAL, in a press release. “Given the growing size and wealth of potential Chinese consumers, we are facing a real existential threat for rhinos, even more than that for elephants, now that there are only about 25,000 rhinos left in Africa.”
EAL’s 11-month investigation involved dozens of undercover interviews with participants in a diffuse illicit network. Several Asian countries were involved, but EAL focused their efforts on China and Vietnam.
“The largest market [for rhino horn] is China, but Vietnam continuously undermines whatever efforts the Chinese do to stop this,” Crosta said in an interview with Mongabay.
The report describes the sophisticated underground trade network in which suppliers in Vietnam arrange to move rhino horn into southern China. From that point, brokers in China take over, getting the horn and products made from it into the hands of deep-pocketed consumers.
Prices of rhino horn – the sale of which is illegal in China and Vietnam – start at about $26,000 per kilogram ($11,818 per pound), Crosta said, and the team was quoted prices as high as $60,000 a kilogram ($27,272 per pound) for raw rhino horn. That dwarfs the price of ivory, which tops out at about $2,500 a kilogram ($1,136 a pound). China is phasing out its legal ivory trade this year in response to international pressure.
Crosta said that Vietnam is home to a few select traders who have connections both in African countries, where nearly all of the rhino horn comes from, and in China, home to the bulk of the consumer demand, and the Vietnamese government is willing to look the other way.
The team discovered that, from Vietnam, porters shuttle rhino horn on their backs across the border. Men and women of all ages, and children as young as 10 years old, haul up to 6 kilograms (13.2 pounds) across unpatrolled parts of the border in the mountains or through established checkpoints. Or boats may ferry it across.
Traders assured EAL’s undercover operatives, posing as interested buyers, that the hired transporters pass back and forth between the countries more or less freely. If they are caught with the horn, the traders said that a small fee paid to border guards would often be enough to allow them to pass.
Smuggling – of many types of illegal goods including other wildlife products and drugs – is a significant part of the economy in Vietnam’s border regions.
“Most of the people on the border, that’s their job,” Crosta said.
A driver that EAL spoke with in Guangxi province figured that 80 to 90 percent of people in the city of Dongxing work in trafficking goods. “If you do not do smuggling, you will be starving,” he said.
Taxi drivers who drive smuggled goods across the border, typically into the provinces of Guangxi or Yunnan, can make $880 a month. And border police can pull in $150 a day in bribes to allow the passage of transporters without inspection into the country, the EAL team reported.
Once in China, traders don’t hold onto their wares for long. Keeping a stockpile could open them up to prosecution in the event of a raid by law enforcement officials, Crosta explained, so they often order the horn from Vietnam only when they have a prospective buyer.
Rhino horn dealers in Vietnam also know which shipping companies they can use to get the products to their final destination, often large cities like Beijing, and EAL reports that traders in China will arrange couriered delivery service.
The network allegedly even has tentacles in the Chinese military: A leader from a local collectors’ association said that he knew of officers in the Chinese navy who would willingly transport rhino products from Africa to Asia.
In addition to the public report, EAL also shared a 200-page “confidential intelligence brief” with law enforcement officials in China, Vietnam and the United States, as well as with Interpol. It contains evidence of illegalities and the paths of entry for rhino horn into China, as well as the names, locations and contact information of 55 people involved in the trade, Crosta said.
He added that it’s clear the trade won’t stop until all of the rhinos are gone. In one of the most telling exchanges the team recorded, one of the traders appeared to say that he only expected rhino horn to be available for another 10 years, implying that he understood that rhinos face the threat of extinction.
Those involved have developed elaborate systems to remain undetected and resilient to pressure brought to bear by the police.
“They are very good at adapting to any kind of cracking down or changing of the rules,” Crosta said. One-off raids aren’t likely to inflict much damage on the trade, he added, “because they pop up again like mushrooms.”
It’s also why he considers the brief that EAL shared with authorities so important.
“This is the perfect operational scenario for a serious intelligence operation,” Crosta said. EAL has provided officials with the information necessary to hold the high-volume traders in this trade accountable to the law in China.
Now, he added, “They just have to enforce it and choke this demand.”
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Banner image of African rhinos © Richard Ladkani/Malaika Pictures courtesy of EAL.