To tackle wildlife crime, joined-up thinking and co-operation between different countries is vital

Every year, customs officers around the world make impressive seizures of illegal wildlife goods, such as the huge haul of ivory and pangolin scales intercepted in Nigeria in January.

But when it comes to effectively disrupting the criminal networks behind these shipments, few tactics are as successful and effective as co-operation between different enforcement agencies.

In April, it was reported that China Customs had arrested principal criminals Hu Juqiang and Chen Jiancheng, the last two wanted in connection with the biggest ivory smuggling case in the country to date.

Some of the ivory seized (c) China Customs

The trafficking ring had smuggled more than 20 tonnes of ivory from Nigeria to China since 2013. In total, 4,661 tusks were seized by the China Customs Anti-Smuggling Bureau (ASB) – representing at least 2,330 elephants lost forever.

In July 2013, China Customs seized 4,460kg of raw ivory from four containers shipped from Nigeria and declared as kosso, a species of timber from Africa. All the main suspects, including the father-and-son trio Chen Jiancheng, Chen Chengguang and Chen Chengzong heading the syndicate, fled upon news of the seizure but continued to profit from ivory trafficking after they went into hiding abroad.

Financial investigations showed that at least two shipments of ivory were sent from Nigeria to China via Singapore and South Korea, including 8,289kg of tusks in August 2017 and 7,481kg of tusks in February 2018. In all, it took the ASB more than seven years to track down and arrest the whole syndicate.

Hu was responsible for sourcing and exporting the ivory from Africa and Chen was the mastermind of the gang; both men were wanted on the INTERPOL Red List. Hu was caught in December 2020 crossing the border into Ghana. Through the collaboration between China’s department of foreign affairs, the ASB and law enforcement in Ghana, he was successfully repatriated in March 2021.

The tusks were concealed in wooden crates and declared as timber (c) China Customs

Chen fled to Malaysia, but was finally repatriated to  to China and handed himself in through the bilateral collaboration of the Chinese and Malaysian police.

This case is a sterling example of the importance of international mutual legal assistance in bringing high-level traffickers to justice.

As detailed in our recent report Off the Hook, kingpins often get away with large profits from wildlife crime as they direct the illegal activities from behind the scenes; the Chens were able to organise huge shipments of ivory while in hiding abroad from authorities.

They also had the resources to counter enforcement efforts and make arrests difficult. Trafficking operations across continents also tend to involve criminals of more than one nationality, such as the Malaysian specialist transporter Chua Siew Tuang in the Chen syndicate. Enforcement agencies in one country alone, however effective, cannot investigate, make arrests and prosecutions in another country.

In all, 17 members of the network, including Chua, were sentenced on 29 December 2020, with the prosecution of Hu and Chen to follow. Without the INTERPOL Red List alerting member countries to the criminals at large, and without the bilateral collaboration mechanisms between the countries, many more elephants would have likely lost their lives to the syndicate.

Elephant Hope poached in Kenya

The price of ivory trade – a poached elephant in Kenya (c) EIA

EIA commends the success of the enforcement agencies in China, Ghana and Malaysia in bringing this syndicate to justice and would like to see more actions taken against wildlife trafficking via cooperation of this kind, especially through alliances of key export, transit and consumer countries.

A recent survey of ivory demand in China shows that despite a decrease in purchase intention among the majority of people sampled, the core of diehard buyers remains as determined as ever to continue purchasing ivory. There is also a large overlap between regular overseas travellers and diehard buyers.

Not only do governments need to close their domestic ivory markets, but more coordination in public-facing campaigns and transnational law enforcement is necessary to stop the trade.