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Tag Archives: South Africa
By Paula Kahumbu
Corruption is what drives the vicious circle linking poverty to organised crime and is the root cause of the current poaching crisis
A Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) ranger stands guard over an ivory haul seized as it transited through Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi. The commitment and integrity of wildlife agencies is key in the war against the poachers. Photograph: TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images
In order to win the war against poaching we have to understand its causes. There are two main explanations for why poaching is endemic and so hard to eradicate in developing countries.
The first explanation is that poaching is driven by organised crime. A recent, widely publicised report by Born Free: “Ivory’s Curse: The Militarisation and Professionalisation of Poaching in Africa”, details the web of corruption linking crime cartels to government officials, army officers and businessmen.
In buying the services of the individuals they need to oil the wheels of their criminal enterprises, the cartels achieve a degree of high level cooperation between the public and private sectors that development agencies can only dream of.
Evidence of the inner workings of crime syndicates is, naturally, hard to come by. But there is plenty of evidence of the involvement of corrupt officials and police officers in the illegal wildlife trade, such as the recent arrest of two police officers in Kenya.
In its conclusions, the Born Free report in calls for anti-poaching investment to be strategically re-focused on the traffickers and cartels.
The second explanation is that poaching is driven by poverty. An earlierIUCN report on elephant poaching provides statistics showing that child mortality and other povert indicators are correlated to poaching intensity. The general conclusion is that poverty drives people to poach.
In this scenario poachers are victims of poverty, but they are also the actual killers of elephants and rhinos, and this is where most governments currently have to invest anti-poaching efforts. But in the longer-term the only sustainable solution is development, to alleviate the poverty that is the cause of poaching.
There is no reason to believe that these two very different explanations contradict one another. Both are almost certainly true. The trade in ivory and other illegal wildlife products is complex, diverse and constantly evolving, like any other trade. Like any other business enterprise, the crime cartels are constantly on the lookout for new opportunities to maximize their profits.
But: how are these two causes of poaching interconnected? In weighing up the evidence, we should bear the following points in mind:
(1) People are not criminals because they are poor. Africa is full of inspiring stories of community-based conservation and development initiatives: stories of poor people trying to make an honest living, using natural resources sustainably.
(2) You don’t have to be poor to be a criminal. Rhino horns are regularly the target of thieves in the UK as well – here also there is evidence that the crime cartels are in the background, masterminding operations.
(3) Any high-value, lightweight product is going to attract the attention of organised crime cartels, be it drugs, diamonds or illegal wildlife products.
Note that it is value of the product that matters, not whether or not it is intrinsically “illegal”. Cartels deal in prescription drugs as well as banned substances, in diamonds as well as rhino horns. This puts paid to arguments that legalising trade in rhino horn is the way to stop poaching.
Let’s look again at the conclusions of the IUCN report which shows a correlation between poaching and poverty. One of the first things that students of statistics are taught is that a correlation does not provide proof of causality. Poverty could be the cause of poaching, but the causal process could go in the other direction: could poaching could be the cause of poverty?
This might sound far-fetched, but poaching does contribute to poverty, by impoverishing communities of their natural capital which could be sustainably harvested or used through tourism for the benefit of wider society.
Poaching also introduces corruption and criminality into communities, leading to the incarceration of young working aged men. The insecurity brought by armed poachers threatens all investments – poachers are known to raid homes and markets for food, steal vehicles and even rape women.
The IUCN report finds that while areas where poverty is worst also see higher levels of elephant poaching, poor villagers do not benefit from the illicit ivory trade. Thus incomes for a few poachers are matched by threats to legitimate sources of income, driving the community greater into poverty and potentially into ever greater dependence on the poaching cartels.
I would argue that corruption what drives this vicious circle and is the root cause of the current poaching crisis. Corruption is the catalyst that binds poverty to organised crime and activates their full destructive potential.
Ingrained corruption in societies gives the cartels freedom of movement to exploit poor people and evade capture. Where corruption is already endemic, it is easy for criminals to further corrupt the system, taking advantage of existing networks developed, for example, for the drugs trade or human trafficking. Where there is no corruption, the cartels will take steps to introduce it.
Would a study of the statistics reveal a correlation between corruption and poaching in the MIKE countries? My guess is it would. Certainly there is evidence to support this hypothesis from one country, Botwana.
This country has long had a policy of zero tolerance for corruption. In the latest report issued by Transparency International, Botwana stands out on the map of Africa as having the continent’s lowest levels of corruption– lower than some European countries.
Botwana also has the largest population of elephants in Africa as well as the best record on poaching in Africa. In a desperate measure, Rhinos are now being moved to Botwana to put them beyond the reach of rampant poaching in neighbouring South Africa, where corruption is endemic at all levels of society.
Drones are being introduced to protect elephants and rhinoceroses in African national parks. The photograph shows the bungee-launch of a Falcon UAV unpiloted aircraft in a demonstration in Namibia. Photograph: © Falcon UAV launch – Helge Denker/WWF-Namibia
Governments and private donors, including the millionaire Howard Buffet, are rushing to Africa to support anti-poaching efforts with drones, helicopters, and more boots on the ground. This is a welcome sign of growing global awareness of the urgency of the situation. Wildlife protection agencies need state-of-the-art technology such as night vision equipment to combat the poachers, who are already using it.
But technology and manpower alone will not solve the problem so long as corruption is not dealt with. Anti-poaching investments in a country with good governance, like Botswana, will contribute towards effective surveillance and protection. But in corrupt countries, there is a real danger the money will end up funding the poachers instead.
In Kenya, there is chilling evidence of how sophisticated surveillance equipment like GPS locators, intended to protected rhinos, is being used by poachers, with the help of corrupt or frightened officials, to locate and target their prey.
The recent announcement of a substantial pay rise for Kenyan rangers protecting elephant and rhino sanctuaries is hugely welcome, a sign that the message that morale and commitment are as important as equipment is beginning to get through.
The corruption highlighted by Born Free Report is an insidious and largely unspoken and filthy threat, not only to African wildlife, but to society as a whole. But this threat is also an opportunity for environmentalists to achieve their long-held dream of mainstreaming the environment in national policy agendas.
To do so, local environmental activists must also become part of the mainstream, by uniting with other social forces in the broader struggle against corruption, and for a fair and just society where humans and animals alike are free to go about their legitimate business.
This article can be found in this link: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/africa-wild/2014/may/05/war-on-poaching-cannot-be-won-unless-we-take-on-corruption
1 May 2014
A CHINESE businessman spent two nights in police holding cells accused of possessing ivory bought without a licence at the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF).
Sum Bin, 51, of Hedong Chengling in China led a delegation from his country which attended the recent ZITF in Bulawayo.
After the trade showcase, the businessman and his delegation visited the Victoria Falls resort for a short holiday before returning home.
But the brief vacation turned into a nightmare when he was arrested Monday afternoon at Victoria Falls International Airport while boarding a plane for South Africa.
A Zimra sniffer dog is said to have alerted authorities who searched Sum Bin’s bag and found a cubic-shaped artefact made of ivory.
Sum Bin was held for two days as cops cracked their heads on a suitable charge.
The businessman eventually appeared before local magistrate, Sharon Rosemani, charged with smuggling Tuesday evening.
Sum told the court he bought the artefact for $10 and did not know it was made of ivory.
Zimra officials quoted the artefact, which weighed 0.092kg, at $23.
The magistrate said, as tourist, it was not proper to imprison him for an item worth $23.
He was fined $100 or an alternative 10 weeks in jail in default.
By Paula Kahumbu
The South African government’s plan to legalise rhino horn sales will simply make life easier for the organised crime cartels that are exterminating the species.
White rhinoceros grazing. More than 1000 were killed by poachers in South Africa in 2013. Photograph: Radius Images/www.jupiterimages.com
I am sitting in a large meeting room at Pretoria University in South Africa at a conference to discuss the trade in rhino horn. Expecting a fierce debate pitting conservationists against hunters and traders, instead I find myself confronting my own impotence against the most horrific poaching of rhinos. What is happening in South Africa is truly in a league of its own.
I already knew that over 1000 rhino are being poached each year in South Africa. But these were just statistics. The fact that it was happening in a far away country made me feel that this was not my problem. Besides, those are white rhinos, the South African species that is still relatively numerous. In Kenya we are mostly concerned about our own species, the critically endangered black rhino.
In short I had many reasons and excuses to not engage with this ‘South African’ problem. Now I am seeing the photos of heartbreaking suffering that poachers are inflicting on rhinos. Faces hacked open, blood saturated soil.
Then, just when I think I am getting used to the images, the videos start flowing.
In one, an animal, barely recognisable as a rhino because its head is just a bloody pulp, moves and tries to get up. I cover my face, then turn to watch, tears streaming down my face. The pain I feel in every cell of my body can not be a fraction of what this once beautiful animal was experiencing.
I look around the room of 50 or so participants, rhino owners, conservationists, scientists, veterinarians, hunters. Every face is a mask of horror and despair.
The rhino without a face tries to walk.His front left leg is broken and he stumbles and snorts in pain, it is a high pitched squeak that sends bubbles of blood out of the hole that was his horn. He struggles painfully, in circles, he can’t see the bush he stumbles into because his eyes are gone, cut out by the poachers. I can’t bear it and have to rush to the bathroom to cry. In the hall there is not a dry face in sight.
The vet and wildlife campaigner Johan Marais showed us these photos and videos to illustrate how some poached rhinos can be rescued, their horrendous wounds will eventually close if careful care is given. It will take months, maybe a year. What is left is a strange deformed creature, with a sad expression, and most of its face missing. It will be scarred for life; the horns will never grow back again. Marais’s work is heroic; rhinos’ lives are saved, but at what cost?
The carcass of a rhino in the Kruger National Park,South Africa, one of 606 killed there by poachers in 2013. Photograph: Foto24/Getty Images
Ironically I was at the conference called by the organization Outraged SA Citizens Against Poaching (OSCAP) to discuss the South African government’s proposal to sell rhino horn. The Department of Environmental Affairs says it has done the maths. South Africa has 20,000 white rhino and their horns can be ‘harvested’ sustainably, without killing the animals. Selling rhino horn will generate the funds needed to support rhino conservation.
Whether wildlife conservation is really the motivation for this proposal – rather than simply making money – is open to question. The South African government did not even bother to send a delegation to the major inter-governmental conference on illegal wildlife trade in London this February.
Moreover, South Africa has form as a trader of products from endangered species. In 2000 the government put forward a similar proposal for the sale of ivory. It argued that the country’s good management of elephant populations should be rewarded. CITES approved the sale of ivory by four southern African countries first to Japan and then, in 2008, to China.
Just as conservationists at the time had warned, that sale triggered a massive demand in China and Southeast Asia leading to uncontrolled poaching that is currently decimating elephant populations across Africa. Now South Africa wants to sell rhino horn. This proposal is utterly outrageous. Here are three reasons why.
First, legalising sales will simply make life easier for the organized crime cartels that already control the trade in rhino horn.
In 1968, South Africa began allowing sport hunting of rhino, once again ostensibly to raise funds for conservation. Trophy hunting arouses strong emotions. Some conservationists, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service, argue that controlled hunting can play a role in protecting species and ecosystems. Others despise the rich white males who need to kill big animals to demonstrate their masculinity, and are outraged at the idea of them coming to Africa to do it. Nevertheless trophy hunting does generate a lot of money and this has motivated some land owners to breed rhinos.
But the fact is that, of the 200 South African rhino hunts in 2013, only 15 were genuine hunts. The rest were rhinos shot by mostly Vietnamese ‘pseudo hunters’, who pay for the privilege of trophy hunting but have no intention of ever mounting their trophy on a wall. The economics are simple: the cost of hunting is about US $20,000, but the 3.5 kg horn is worth many times more when ground up into a fine dust, for sale as a ‘medicinal’ product. Current prices are estimated at up to US $75,000 per kg.
The scam is widely prevalent and has been exposed as highly organized crime by investigative journalist Julian Rademeyer in his best-selling book ‘Killing for Profit’. He tells how the Vietnamese cartels operate, how they subvert justice, how powerful they are, and how helpless rhino owners are against this foe. Owning rhinos has become a liability: it attracts criminals to your property.
At present, trade in rhino horns is illegal. The proposal to allow legal trade will simply open the floodgates to allow millions of dollars of poached rhino horn – indistinguishable from the ‘legal’ product’ – onto the market. Exactly the same happened when ivory trade was legalised at the start of the century, initiating a catastrophic decline in elephant populations across the continent.
Secondly, the idea that regulated trade in rhino horn will work as a strategy against poaching is preposterous. According to a study supporting the South African proposal, existing ‘demand’ could be met by moving 2000 adult rhinoceros – 10% of the wild population – to fenced enclosures covering a total of 400,000 ha. These a poor animals would then have their horns ‘humanely’ removed once every two years over their lifespan of 35 to 50 years.
But in reality there is no way that the supply from farmed rhino could come remotely close to meeting the demand, which is growing exponentially as consumers in the principal markets in Southeast Asia become richer.
Anyway, the criminal cartels that control the trade have no reason to buy expensive ‘farmed’ rhino, when they could just as easily poach it, or help themselves to more of the dwindling wild population in poorly protected national parks. Violence is deeply entrenched in the traffickers operations and they have no interest in the conservation of the species.
In the short term, the rarer rhinos become, the more prices will rise. Then, when rhinos are extinct, the traffickers will move on and invest their profits somewhere else. Their business model is an apocalyptic vision of asset stripping on a grand scale.
Finally, from an ethical standpoint, what is worst about this proposal is that it is based on peddling a lie. In Southeast Asia, rhino horns have been used in traditional medicine for centuries.
It is now known that rhino horns have no medicinal value at all; chemically they are indistinguishable from horses’ hooves and human toenails. But Vietnamese traffickers are fuelling demand by marketing new ‘benefits’ of rhino horn, as an aphrodisiac or a cure for hangovers, or cancer.
This is quack medicine. A mandarin-speaking colleague of mine recently got into conversation with a Chinese visitor to Kenya and asked him about the purpose of his visit. “I’ve come to get rhino horn,” the man replied. “My daughter is dying and the doctor says that rhino horn is the only thing that can save her.” By allowing rhino horn to be marketed, African nations would be complicit in this kind of cruel deception.
After the conference, shocked, deeply saddened, traumatized, paralysed, and numb, I returned to Nairobi and lay in bed thinking for two days. Then on Monday, I awoke to another beautiful dawn over Nairobi Park, home of black and white rhino, which poachers already have their eyes on. We cannot allow our leaders to be complicit in the desecration of our continent. My message to the South African government is simple: for God’s sake, stop before it is too late.
This article can be found in the following link: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/africa-wild/2014/apr/17/trade-in-rhino-horn-asset-stripping-on-an-apocalyptic-scale
by Megan Thompson
On March 3rd, former NBA superstar Yao Ming delivered a very important petition at the opening session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultation Conference. With this first step, Yao is urging his home country of China – currently the world’s leading ivory consumer – to ban the sale of ivory and help end the current poaching crisis that is threatening endangered elephant and rhino populations worldwide.
Yao was able to experience the crisis firsthand when he traveled to Kenya and South Africa to film a documentary on illegal poaching. After returning home, he launched a campaign in partnership with WildAid, the African Wildlife Foundation and Save the Elephants to reduce the demand for ivory and rhino horns.
Since its foundation, the campaign was been very successful in China and has yielded encouraging results. This January, government officials crushed more than six tons of ivory to send a message to those in the ivory trade. On February 27th, many of China’s top businessmen pledged to never purchase, possess or gift ivory – a huge step for a culture that has considered ivory an important present and sign of respect.
Huang Nubo, WildAid China Board Chairman, said “[a]s China grows up, Chinese companies should do the same and take on more social responsibility. This is why we are joining efforts to protect our planet’s wildlife. We hope this ethic becomes engrained in us and is passed down to future generations.”
This is not the first time Yao has stepped up to protect threatened animals in his country. After Yao participated in a past campaign with WildAid, President Xi’s administration banned dishes including shark fin from state banquets. This was a great commitment for the country since, before the ban, shark fin soup was considered a sign of status and was expected at most important gatherings. Since shark fin dishes were excluded from state banquets, China’s demand for the fins has dropped by 50%.
BY MALCOLM MOORE, LONDON DAILY TELEGRAPH
FEBRUARY 11, 2014
With its sleek glass and wood exterior, the Tianya Antiques City is a temple to modern Chinese
craftsmanship. Inside, the traders sell their wares from boutique stalls more like museums than
markets – jade, emerald and coral.
But the real draw for visitors to the Beijing centre is also its most controversial: ivory.
As a high-level summit to combat wildlife trafficking and poaching opens in London Wednesday,
hosted by the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge, shifting Chinese attitudes toward
ivory will be one of the most important goals, given that it is the world’s most populous nation
with a strong appetite for elephant tusk.
It will not be easy, as Fu Junjun, who works at her father’s ivory shop in the 11-floor market,
testified. “The price of ivory keeps going up, and the government’s decision to destroy that ivory
stockpile actually helped us,” she said, referring to the recent crushing of about 5.5 tonnes by
Chinese authorities. “The smaller stores now find it harder to get a good supply, but bigger
stores like us have hardly felt any impact and it helped put the price up.”
Ivory is legal in China provided it comes from a government-registered dealer, and there
continues to be a significant demand – partly as an increasingly valuable commodity and partly
because, according to the principles of feng shui, ivory can “disperse misfortune and drive out
In 2008, the international community allowed four African countries – Namibia, Zimbabwe,
South Africa and Botswana – to sell their stockpiles of ivory to Japan and China for $15 million in
an attempt to control the slaughter of elephants.
All of the ivory available in China is technically supposed to have come from that auction, and
each carving carries its own certificate of provenance. But environmentalists warn that there is
rampant cheating in the system and that illegal ivory is easily laundered. A survey by IFAW in
2011 found that, of 158 shops and carving factories in Beijing, Shanghai, Fuzhou and Guang-
zhou, 101 were not licensed, or were selling smuggled ivory.
At Panjiayuan, Beijing’s biggest curio market, dealers said they had no elephant tusk on offer.
But when asked if they wanted to buy an unlicensed piece of ivory, several asked to take a look.
“I have bought cheap ivory online,” said Xu Song, a 25-year-old carver. “I cannot say whether
they were smuggled or not, but they are cheap, so I suppose so.
“Perhaps the biggest legacy of the decision to allow ivory auctions is that it has convinced the
Chinese that ivory is no longer a desperately endangered commodity. I do not think the supply
of ivory is a problem. We have not really thought about it.”
On the upside, the Chinese have discovered a new commodity that is now rivalling elephant
ivory in desirability: woolly mammoth ivory. Each summer, hundreds of tusks are dug up in
Siberia and sent south for carving.
Article at the following link:
By Melanie Gosling, Independent Online
December 13 2013
Cape Town – About 30 000 elephants are killed in Africa every year, and opening the legal ivory trade is likely to increase poaching and lead to local extinctions of these big mammals, according to international NGO Environmental Investigation Agency.
Executive director Mary Rice, who was in Cape Town after attending the African Elephant Summit in Gaborone earlier this month, said unless countries backed off the idea of selling stockpiles of ivory, “there is not a bright future for elephants”.
“We are in a major crisis of elephant poaching and illegal ivory trade. The year exceeded all others with more than 40 tons of ivory seized. South Africa is not being impacted by ivory poaching now, but that could change. Step outside South Africa and the situation is critical. We’re already seeing incursions into Botswana and Namibia, and both are countries perceived to be well resourced and policed,” Rice said.
There are differing views on whether selling the stockpiles of ivory, built up over years from natural elephant deaths, will flood the market and reduce demand, there-by protecting elephants from poachers’ guns, or whether doing so will stimulate the ivory market and increase poaching.
International trade in ivory is illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).
However, under pressure from southern African states with stockpiles of ivory, Cites authorised two controlled auctions of ivory, in 1999 and 2008. South Africa’s official stance is that there is no link between the legal ivory trade and poaching.
Environment Minister Edna Molewa said earlier this year: “As far as South Africa is concerned there is no linkage between that once-off sale (in 2008) and poaching. While we know what is happening in other range states – as seen in the media where elephants are, for example, being poached to fund rebel forces in internal conflicts – we would like to emphasise that no elephant have been poached in South Africa since the once-off sale. We are only aware of two elephants that have died in the past decade, after being caught in snares set for antelopes.”
South Africa is to host the Cites meeting in 2016.
Rice believes legalising one-off sales of stockpiles stimulates the market and provides a cover for poached ivory. “In the light of the current poaching crisis, the most significant urgent measure that could be adopted is to make a complete ban on all ivory trade, domestic and international. The message we put out is: ‘Don’t sell ivory of any kind. It is not the answer’.
“Instead, states with elephant populations need to tackle corruption, which fuels the illegal trade, and need to approach the illegal trade from an intelligence base. It is a narrow, blinkered view that selling ivory will solve poaching. We urge South Africa to look at alternatives to trade. If South Africans go down this route… they will find themselves living to regret it,” Rice said. “Selling the ivory stockpile… could stimulate even more demand for ivory.” – Cape Times
Customs officers seized a total of about 160 kilograms of ivory tusks and worked ivory at the Hong Kong International Airport during a planned operation from December 13 to 15. The items were found in the check-in baggage of 14 persons from three in-bound flights from Dubai and Johannesburg.
The cases were referred to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) for follow-up action.
Seven travellers, comprising four men and three women aged between 24 and 48, were immediately prosecuted and appeared in court on December 14 and today (December 16).
Under the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance (Cap 586), any person found guilty of importing, exporting, re-exporting or possessing any endangered species without a licence is liable to a maximum fine of $5 million, imprisonment for two years and mandatory forfeiture of the specimens. The public are reminded to comply with the regulations.
To enquire about the import of endangered species and report illegal import cases, the public can call 1823 or visit the website www.cites.hk.
For the first time, journalists from mainland China worked with African journalists on an undercover investigation into the Chinese connection with ivory and rhino horns market in South Africa and Mozambique
Courtesy of Oxpeckers Center for Investigative Environmental Journalists (oxpeckers.org)
October 2013. Wildlife trafficking syndicates brazenly sell rhino horn and ivory at Chinese markets in Southern Africa’s capital cities, in the face of global attempts to crack down on the illicit trade in endangered species.
China is responsible for an estimated 70% of the world trade in ivory, and research by the international wildlife trade monitoring organisation Traffic indicates that nearly 80% of the reported seizures of illegal rhino horns in Asia between 2009 and late last year happened in China.
The recent influx of Chinese immigrants to Southern Africa has seen the market grow. Who are the Chinese people involved, and how do they go about buying these illegal products?
Bruma flea market and New Chinatown
Chinese journalists on an undercover assignment discovered that the Bruma flea market and nearby New Chinatown in eastern Johannesburg are the hub of the illicit trade in rhino horns and ivory in South Africa. Transactions between African sellers and Asian buyers occur relatively openly and daily.
From 9am to 5pm, sellers hang around the entrance to the Bruma flea market and eagerly surround Chinese people as they approach. “What are you looking for? Do you want xiangya? I have,” says Mike, a seller who hails from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Do you have xiniujiao?” we asked. Xiangya is the Chinese term for ivory, xiniujiao for rhino horns, and it is clear Mike, as well as many other shop owners, is familiar with the terms.
“Xiniujiao… anytime but now. If you come back next month, maybe I could help you get some. Now it is impossible,” says Mike. He opens a door which is covered by a hanged blanket, shows us into a secret room near his craft shop where he has a stock of worked ivory products: small sculptures of elephants, chopsticks, necklaces, bracelets. The price is not too expensive, ranging from R200 a piece.
Matt, a Zimbabwean who works in Mike’s craft shop, says most of the rhino horns and ivory they are selling comes from his home country. He explains how he imports it: “There is a river that divides the two countries and we find a part where the water is not too deep and there is almost no security patrolling. We take off our clothes and carry the stuff on our shoulders across the river.” His biggest concern appears to be that there are crocodiles in some parts of the river.
Other shop owners in this market call out to us with offers of xiangya and xiniujiao. Ernest, another shop owner from the Congo, says: “Your Chinese friends may find it hard to get rhino horns, but we are Africans, we know how.”
Along Derrick Avenue in New Chinatown, home to most of Johannesburg’s recent Chinese immigrants, we speak to Gong, a taxi driver whose business card includes many other services related to the local immigration office, embassy and police department.
Easy to buy ivory
“It is easy to buy ivory and I could help you tell which ones are fake – I have been buying it for many years,” he says.
Ivory is just one of the businesses Gong has engaged in since he immigrated to South Africa six years ago. Like most Chinese in his community, he does not have a good educational background and barely speaks English. He used to assist a friend running a Chinese brothel until police closed it down.
However, he does not think it is a good idea for a visitor to purchase rhino horns here because it has become too risky. “Nowadays it is more dangerous than drugs,” he says. “Even if I could get it for you, I would not take the risk of selling it to an outsider like you rather than known partners. Ivory and rhino horns are like weeds and heroine.”
Gong says fewer Chinese are directly involved in smuggling rhino horn these days, although some still buy from Vietnamese traffickers. Consumers would be better advised to buy horn in China, where he could introduce us to sellers, he adds.
The research released by WWF in September indicates that Vietnamese presently dominate the rhino horn trade, but non-Asians often find it hard to differentiate between Chinese and Vietnamese people.
Chinese smugglers still dominate the abalone smuggling market in South Africa, and according to a police expert up to 90% of abalone smugglers are connected with rhino horn since they share the same smuggling pipelines to Asia.
Several residents of New Chinatown echo Gong’s concern about the dangers involved in trading rhino horn. “Everyone knows that it is a crime. Some Chinese were arrested because of participating in the trade. You’d be advised not to ask around,” says Jing, who works in a massage parlour.
Many employees of Chinese companies in South Africa avoid New Chinatown, so named to distinguish it from the original Chinatown in central Johannesburg, because of its reputation for being involved with smuggling and other dangerous business.
“I would usually not go to the New Chinatown area. There is a mix of good people and various criminals,” says Zhang Jinguo, the head of the Chinese Construction Bank in Johannesburg.
Maputo: Hot spot for ivory
Among the Chinese residents of Johannesburg, it is common knowledge that the Chinese buy ivory and rhino horn much more often in Maputo, capital city of neighbouring Mozambique.
We visit the Saturday market at Praça 25 de Junho in Maputo, where we have learnt that buying such products is a “must do” for employees of Chinese companies who are not well educated and have unskilled jobs.
“The products are unique and cheap,” says Chen, a frequent Chinese buyer in Maputo who works for a Chinese construction company.
At the Saturday market, Kai, a 29-year-old working for a Chinese telecommunications company, is shooting a video to send to his families in China. “Hello dears, look where I am. This is the most famous ivory market here, I will bring you some good stuff,” he says.
Shop owners like Adam are visibly excited when they see a group of Chinese people approaching. “Come, we have heimu and xiangya,” he says. He says the Chinese are generally interested in buying two things in Mozambique: heimu, which is a black wood, and xiangya, namely ivory.
He also offers rhino horns at US$15 000 dollars a kilogram, though he says he does not keep it in the marketplace because it is too expensive. He opens a big box filled with various ivory products and displays them openly. However, when some Chinese customers lift the ivory too high he asks them to put them down, in case the police notice and make trouble.
Dong, an employee of a Chinese national oil company who has been in Mozambique for almost four years, is browsing through the market with three colleagues. He is mostly interested in buying bracelets made of black wood, animal horns and ivory. After bargaining, he buys two ivory bracelets for about R500 and his colleague buys two as well.
“We will need to take them apart and hide the pieces in the corners of our luggage. Then even if customs finds some we can still make them up into bracelets again in China,” Dong advises his less-experienced colleague.
As Dong’s group walks away, a nearby shop owner reminds them to hide their ivory bracelets inside their pockets, because if the police see them they will ask for money to “solve the problem”. Policemen are patrolling the market all the time, but they seem more interested in asking foreigners for their passports and money than finding ivory.
Unlike the Saturday “ivory market”, the craft market on nearby Mao Tse Tung Avenue opens every day. Chen, who has worked for a Maputo-based Chinese construction company for the past two years, is going back home in December and needs to stock up on souvenirs for friends and families.
He buys two pairs of ivory chopsticks, and says even though they may be confiscated by customs he can afford the loss. “Sometimes they pass and these things are cheap enough to be taken away if we have bad luck,” he says.
A colleague recently bought a large ivory sculpture and when it was found by customs officers in Mozambique he paid $300 to get it through. No one at customs in Beijing found it, Chen says.
He has a good collection of ivory products, and believes they can be an investment. “When you have enough money, you display them in your house. When you need money, you can always sell them,” he says.
Don’t care about the slaughter of elephants
Most of the Chinese buyers know where the ivory comes from, but don’t care about the slaughter of elephants. Kai, one of the buyers of ivory bracelets, sums up their feeling when he admits that he did not feel guilty about buying ivory products even though he knows how the sellers get it.
However, there are some Chinese who refuse to buy into the market. “These items are art from killing,” says Xu, a friend and colleague of Kai. But he indicates that there are few Chinese like him.
Due to the sensitivity of the investigations, real names cannot be disclosed.
This investigation by the Oxpeckers Center for Investigative Environmental Journalists (oxpeckers.org) was supported by the Forum for African Investigative Reporters (fairreporters.net) and the Wits China-Africa Reporting Project