Ivory and instability

In northern Mozambique, rangers report that in the first six months of 2013 an average of three to four elephants were being poached each day for their ivory. As the Mozambican economy grows, Chinese businesses have been flooding into the country. Oxpeckers reporters visited the northern border region of Mozambique to investigate links between the Chinese and the ivory poaching.

by Oxpeckers reporters

Terrorism and ivory

In African countries with poor governance and legal systems, some “smart” Chinese people use loopholes for personal gain, such as buying and smuggling ivory. But this doesn’t mean the Chinese enjoy the corruption and instability they find in many African countries. The reason is simple: the challenges of Africa are now affecting their personal well-being, as China goes global.

“A family member of my good friend in Kenya died in the Westgate attack in September. I never realised terrorism could be so close to us,” said Yang Du, a Chinese student studying at Columbia University in the United States.

“Who is going to buy houses in a city with a terrorism threat?” said Yi Ge, the sales manager of a Chinese real estate company in Nairobi.

Like Du and Ge, Chinese have started to realise terrorism and chaos in Africa is not a distant phenomenon. Among the 60 victims killed by al-Shabaab in Nairobi was a Chinese mother.

But most Chinese have not yet realised how they themselves are connected to terrorism: the illicit ivory trade funds up to 40% of the cost of al-Shabaab’s army of 5,000 people, according to Andrea Crosta, a director of the Elephant Action League and co-author of a 2011 report into the links between poaching and terror groups. And the Chinese market is estimated to be responsible for up to 70% of worldwide ivory trade, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Today, the terrorism and instability partially funded by Chinese ivory buyers is starting to threaten Chinese in Africa. Some of the better-educated Chinese recognise this, but the trade is continuing, especially in countries that still have relatively abundant elephants, weak laws and heavy corruption, such as Mozambique.

There has been massive elephant poaching in Mozambique — mostly in protected areas within the two northern provinces of Niassa and Cabo Delgado, but also in Limpopo National Park that is part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park straddling the borders of Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe. At least 2,500 elephants were reported killed by poachers in Mozambique between 2009 and 2012, and in the northern reserves rangers reported in the first six months of 2013 that an average of three to four elephants were being killed each day.

Souvenir level

In the Quirimbas National Park in Cabo Delgado province, an Oxpeckers reporter witnessed how a poacher caught in possession of a baby elephant foot was sent to police and set free after just three days.

According to Baldeu Chande, the official in charge of Quirimbas, where the poacher was caught, letting some poachers go free was part of a strategy to arrest a bigger criminal about whom the poacher had knowledge.

“Poachers are asked to pay a fine and compensation for the animals they killed. Each animal has a price in our law,” Chande said.

As the Mozambican economy grows with its abundant natural resources, Chinese have been flooding into the country. By 2011 the population of Chinese in Mozambique was estimated to be about 7,000 to 12,000, spreading from Maputo in the south to Pemba in the north. While Chinese investment has brought opportunities and employment to the country, existing problems in governance and law become incentives for some Chinese to seek personal gain.

Among the Chinese, Mozambique is popular for ivory and hardwoods, and both are in the grey area of local regulations for trading in endangered species. According to Chande, carved ivory sourced from a legal channel is allowed to be sold domestically. This loophole, added to corruption among customs officials, enables the export of ivory.

Similarly, timber companies can source timber from locals, pretending they don’t know 50% of the local logging in Mozambique is illegal, according to a report published by the Environmental Investigation Agency earlier this year.

Chinese shoppers who buy carved ivory as souvenirs for friends and family are not afraid of taking small amounts of ivory out of Mozambique.

“Give the custom people 2,000 meticais [about R700, or US$70]and ask them not to check your luggage. Last time I did not even give them money, since I am familiar with those people,” said “Liu”. He works for the Chinese company that built Maputo International Airport and from time to time he patrols inside the airport to maintain the equipment.

What the Oxpeckers reporter witnessed in this airport on September 28, 2013 proved Liu’s confidence. Two Asian-looking men were stopped at the customs after three officials found something inside one of their plastic bags. After some negotiation, one of the travelers walked away, pulled out some money from his pocket and went back, putting the money inside the plastic bag. The customs people got the meaning, quietly grasped the money from the bag and let them go, smiling.

“Don’t take out more than one kilo [of ivory] at a time and you will be fine. Pay some money and you can go through Mozambique customs. In China, if the ivory is found, just give it to the airport and say you don’t know it is illegal — these things are so cheap anyway,” advised “Chen”, a Chinese construction worker in Maputo.

He did not have a good education back in China, but is smart enough to do the calculation. According to him, a pair of high-quality ivory bracelets only costs around 2,000meticaisin Maputo. It could be confiscated on the way, but if it reaches China its value would be around 50,000 meticais (about R17,000).

Container level

There is not only small-scale Chinese smuggling of carved ivory. In Pemba in the north, 126 elephant tusks and one rhino horn were found hidden among the timber inside a Chinese company’s shipping container in 2011. The company, Tienhe, was fined US$3.5-million in a Mozambique court to compensate its Mozambican partner company, and was shut down in September 2013.

Chinese businessmen in Pemba said the profit Tienhe had made during its past successful smuggling operations would make up for the loss. Their opinion was that the company was not wrong doing this illegal trade, but was wrong in not paying enough money in bribes.

According to “Zhou”, a manager in a major Chinese timber company in Pemba, most of the timber businesses in northern Mozambique operate within the grey area of the law. And while companies in the fields of energy, minerals and construction seldom dabble in ivory, private businesses involved in timber and seafood are likely offenders in the ivory trade.

In another Chinese timber company in Pemba, the Oxpeckers reporter saw two uniformed officers sitting inside the company compound and watching TV. “One is from customs and one is from the police. They are supposed to watch us when we are loading the container. Well, they come here, ask for money and watch TV instead,” laughed “Qian”. He has been in Pemba for a year.

Diplomatic level

Chinese people in Mozambique talk openly about high-level ivory smuggling taking place via the diplomatic channel. Illegal shipments are sent to China on special aeroplanes transporting visiting government officials, or on Chinese army ships — both exempt from customs searches, they say.

“About two years ago, a top Chinese official from Beijing visited Maputo and was hosted by our company. We prepared him several ivory tusks, and asked Chinese workers to cut them secretly so that they could be taken back by special aeroplane,” said “Xiong”. He recently joined this Chinese company, and said the incident is common knowledge among his colleagues.

The existence of the diplomatic channel is extremely difficult to prove, however, and an official in the Chinese foreign service who did not wish to be named said many of the stories about the diplomatic channel are based on rumour.

“There are few such cases, since there are not too many visiting officials and army ships, and the amount should not be significant in the ivory trade. However, these rumours can provide bad incentives to ordinary Chinese,” he said. — oxpeckers.org


Due to the sensitivity of the investigation, some real names cannot be disclosed.

This transnational linvestigation by the Oxpeckers Centre for Investigative Environmental Journalists was supported by the Conservation Action Trust, the Wits China-Africa Reporting Project and the Forum for African Investigative Reporters