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Undercover operation exposes Vietnam as growing hub for international ivory trade

  • Video report by ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edward

Just two years after Vietnam hosted a major conference on wildlife crime, at which Prince William was the keynote speaker, the country has been exposed as a growing player in the international ivory trade.

As China introduced stricter enforcement on its entry and exit points, several Vietnamese syndicates appear to have picked up the mantle.

The Environmental Investigation Agency has revealed a network of syndicates which its undercover officers managed to infiltrate over a two year period.

China has a long standing tradition of using ivory to carve sculptures, such as this one of Chairman Mao. Credit: ITV News

These sophisticated smuggling rings are sourcing ivory and rhino horn in Mozambique and bringing it into Vietnam where it is being sold onto mostly Chinese customers in trading centres which have emerged in the North of the country.

In recorded conversations they had with some of the key players, the ivory traders boast about how easy it is to source ivory from poachers and to get it out of Africa and into Asia.

Huge piles of raw tusk were uncovered. Credit: ITV News

Most of it is shipped out of Mozambique to Malaysia and then flown onto Laos, where it will be taken by road into neighbouring Vietnam, and then China.

The EIA was told about some of the methods they use to conceal the ivory, including encasing it in wax, or hiding it in hollowed out timber.

Illegal ivory trade means sights such as this are common in Mozambique. Credit: ITV News

From the beginning of 2016 to the end of 2017 there were believed to be at least 22 successful shipments with an estimated 19 tonnes of ivory worth a potential $14 million on the black market.

It’s claimed police officers, soldiers and customs officials in Africa and Asia are being paid to turn a blind eye.

One of the most shocking moments in the EIA investigation was when their undercover officers, posing as buyers, were brought into a workshop in Hanoi where they were shown a new shipment.

  • Mary Rice, executive director of the EIA, explains the operation's findings:

They were confronted with dozens of raw tusks. Piled up on the ground was around 500kg, it was part of a 1.5 tonne shipment, which represents around 150 elephants.

As a result of poaching the elephant population in Mozambique is now critically threatened. It has been reduced from more than 11 thousand to just over one thousand.

Although a government ban and better enforcement has clamped down on some of the trade in China, there’s still a large demand for ivory products.

Elephants have been fiercely poached in Mozambique. Credit: ITV News

The geographical location of Vietnam, sharing a border with China, has helped it become a supplier to Chinese customers and distributors.

Particularly among the older generation in China ivory goods are a prized possession and part of an accepted culture.

We travelled to Southern China to speak to a respected ivory carver in Wenzhou.

He and his team are now mostly carving on unearthed mammoth tusks. He described the government ban introduced last year as a huge blow to the industry.

As he proudly showed off his families carved elephant tusks he said he supported the international community in its effort to protect elephants but he believes it’s necessary to preserve the cultural heritage and skills of Chinese carvers.

He would like to be able to pass his ivory carving skills on to his son.

The Vietnamese Government has said it is tackling illegal wildlife trade and trafficking and it is working with other countries in the region, including China to prevent it from happening.

Vietnam has been always actively protecting and developing wildlife, especially endangered species. The Government of Vietnam has enacted various legal documents and adopted various measures to tackle illegal wildlife trade in strict compliance with Vietnamese legal regulations and in accordance with international law.

Vietnam is currently classified in Group A, the group of countries with the best legal system, based on criteria of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

In addition to being member of many international and regional treaties such as CITES, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), The ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN), World Customs Organization (WCO), as well as many other international initiatives and commitments, Vietnam also actively cooperates with other countries in the protection, prevention of illegal hunting, trade and trafficking of all wildlife species.

In December 2016, Vietnam hosted the International Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade. In September 2017, the Ministry of Public Security of Vietnam, in coordination with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development of Vietnam and British Embassy in Hanoi, hosted the Bilateral Conference on Prevention of Illegal Wildlife Trade in order to exchange expertise and experience between Vietnamese and British authorities.

– Embassy of Vietnam, UK

But what law enforcement is so far failing to address is the desire for ivory and as long as there is a market, there will be people wanting to make money.