From profits to prison – the impact of proper investigations into illegal wildlife trade

In an indication that China is getting serious about properly prosecuting wildlife criminals, a court in Jiangsu province has jailed a man for 11-and-a-half years and confiscated about £54,900 (500,000 RMB) worth of his private assets for ivory smuggling.

The man, named in court reports only as Dai, was sentenced on 28 July and is the latest of a string of individuals from a major illegal wildlife trade network to be successfully prosecuted.

The case was first filed in February last year following the arrest of Dai and two other suspects, along with the seizure of 273kg of raw ivory – equivalent to approximately 40 dead elephants.

Two Chinese men showing a pile of illegal ivory in a storage room

Illegal ivory caught on hidden camera by EIA’s investigators (c) EIAimage

Details were found on Dai’s mobile phone of a number of Vietnamese and Chinese suppliers and investigations into their bank accounts confirmed the extent of the illegal profits involved while further identifying more buyers, resulting in the arrest of another six individuals and the seizure of 170.6kg of ivory, 73.6kg of elephant skin, 7.3kg of rhino skin, a small quantity of pangolin scales and illegal firearms.

Dai’s conviction was followed on 31 July by the news that Zheng Xinchun, a core member of a Shuidong ivory smuggling syndicate, was jailed for 15 years and had about £275,130 (2.5 million RMB) in private assets confiscated.

Zheng’s conviction, as with that of other criminals active in the Shuidong syndicate, was made possible after EIA shared the findings of its investigations with authorities in China.

For 18 months, our undercover investigators gained the confidence of the gang of smugglers and tracked their activities from Mozambique to Shuidong, an obscure town  in southern China.

Front cover of our report entitled The Shuidong Connection: Exposing the global hub of the illegal ivory trade

The information we shared with the China Customs Anti-Smuggling Bureau prompted a series of financial investigations, arrests and prosecutions, with the outcome that at least two major ivory smuggling syndicates have been disrupted and 44 people arrested, with 20 convictions to date and a total of approximately £1.2 million (11.35 million RMB) worth of assets confiscated.

The wildlife products smuggled by the two syndicates included more than eight tonnes of ivory (which equates to approximately 1,194 dead elephants), 796kg pangolin scales and almost a tonne of rhino horn from Africa.

Both cases are examples of just how effective enforcement and prosecution can be when authorities follow the money trails; by scrutinising the bank transactions of the suspects, suppliers and buyers can be identified.

Since many negotiations and deals between suppliers and buyers are now made online, the extraction of call and chat records from phones is also vital in mapping out the full illegal network. The financial investigations carried out allowed these suspects to be prosecuted not just for the quantities seized, but for the full scale of their smuggling activities – in Dai’s case, it was 563kg ivory and for Zheng, it was 5,222kg valued at more than £23.8 million.

According to EIA’s database of seizures of illegal wildlife, only 20 per cent of them have resulted in convictions. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has also reported that money laundering investigations are conducted in just one per cent of all detected wildlife crime cases.

Far too often, enforcement efforts stop at the seizure of the illegal goods or the person at the scene. The Shuidong case is a great example of how proper intelligence-gathering and financial investigations can disrupt not just one but multiple transnational wildlife crime networks. Following the money is key.