Ivorytrade: Black market challenges authorities

Nov 27, 2019 | News

By VietnamPlus

With the rise of social networks, such as Zalo, Facebook, Youtube, etc., illegal trade of elephant ivories has been booming. 
Advertisements on non-sense miraculous effects of the item, such as chasing away evil spirits and bringing power, prosperity and luck, have greatly boosted the demand for it.

Illegal ivory trade is widely available at physical and online retail outlets throughout Vietnam, according to a new TRAFFIC report published with support from USAID.

The study, “From tusk to trinket: persistent illegal ivory markets in Vietnam,” documents surveys recently carried out at 852 retail outlets in 13 locations and 60 individual sellers on 17 online platforms.

Although selling ivory is illegal in Vietnam, researchers found more than 10,500 items for sale, demonstrating the persistence of the ivory retail market.

But the report also found that retailers are often transitory.

Although ivory was found in all 13 locations, its sale appeared highly transitory in nature: repeat visits found that 43 per cent of retail outlets observed with ivory had only just began to sell, stopped selling or simply closed over the course of the survey. The comparable figure for online retailers was 86 per cent.

There are clear links between Vietnam’s physical ivory markets and online outlets, the report said. The survey found retail outlets expanding their networks to sell ivory items online and vice versa.

In eight instances, online sellers were either linked to physical stores or physical stores were also selling their items on social media websites, e-commerce websites or online forums.

With the thriving market, Vietnam is considered a transition station for trans-national wildlife trafficking, as admitted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in its Action Plan for Preventing Elephant Ivory and Rhino Horn Trading 2018-2020.

Wildlife trafficking, especially elephant ivory trading, not only brings about detrimental effects to national security and consonation goals, but also deters the country’s law enforcement to fight illegal ivory trade.

In order to fight wildlife trafficking, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in September 2016 issued a Direction on urgent measures in preventing and fighting against wildlife animal abuse.

Accordingly, the Government undertakes to tighten legal regulations on wildlife protection through ‘reviewing, monitoring and seriously handling illegal elephant ivory and rhino horn trading activities; carefully examining craft villages, workshops, souvenir and traditional herbal medicine stores’.

To reduce and eliminate Vietnam’s illicit ivory markets, insiders offer a number of recommendations to the Vietnamese Government, conservation groups and the wider stakeholder community.

They include closing legislative loopholes, boosting enforcement capacity and increasing deterrents against criminal activity, restricting the market availability of ivory, reducing consumer demand for ivory, and continuing to monitor market trends.

In 2013, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Secretariat told Vietnam to prepare a National Ivory Action Plan as part of its international responsibility under the convention to address the illegal ivory trade and curtail the associated poaching of elephants.

The plan included activities addressing regulations, corruption and ivory stockpile management among other things.

Despite strenuous efforts from within and without Vietnam, wildlife trafficking situation, especially illegal elephant ivory trading, is still complicated, greatly hindering the law enforcement forces.

According to experts in wildlife protection, Vietnam is among the world’s most bullish elephant ivory trading markets. It is estimated that 150 elephant ivory trading cases with a total volume of 53 tonnes were confiscated from 2010 to 2018, according to Education for Nature-Vietnam (ENV) organisation. Among which, 30 cases with volumes of over 500 kilos per one were uncovered. A majority of them were captured at border gates and sea ports.

What causes headache among authorities is that no recipients were captured in spite of addresses written in each shipment.

Given the unusual situation, Vietnamplus journalists visit Don village, Buon Don district, Buon Me Thuot city, Dak Lak province, where is renowned for its name of ‘Vietnamese elephant capital’. The visit revealed a number of sophisticated tricks of ivory traders. 

On early days of March, elephants are stirring up the atmosphere of the Coffee Festival in Buon Ma Thuot city in Dak Lak province. They are living the moment without any idea that their family members elsewhere are being brutally killed for ivory, fur, skin and bone.

Ivory Hunt

With advice from some ivory buyers who also attend the Coffee Festival, we Vietnamplus journalists, distinguished as visitors, easily discover a handicraft outlet on Y Ngong street.

Here, we are offered with abundant choices, such as rings, necklaces, pens, combs, etc., which are made from elephant tush. When asking for ‘something cooler’, we are told to pay over 4,000 US dollars to own whole tusk weighing 2.2 kilos. 

Right next to the place where an outlet staff member is convincing us to buy ivory items, sit a young man, who seems to be an experienced ivory buyer. He is bargaining with the shop owner, whose name is V., over the price of tusks contained in large nylon bags.

V., after finishing talking to the guy, turns his head to us, whom he sees as potential customers. He points to shiny glass shelves in a hidden corner of the outlet, on which full of ivory items are on display, while assuring us they are all ‘authentic’. “If these products are made from fake ivory, I will give you thousands of dollars, even my car” he speaks confidently.

Ivory Displayed Publicly for Sale in Don Village

V. is not the only ivory dealer in Don village. Ivory trading is so hectic that it even has a ‘black market’ within the market itself. The black market is operated by double-job secret vendors.

With a random question on where to buy ivory products, H., a ticket collector at Don village eco-tourism site immediately shows herself as an ivory dealer. She pulled out from her purse several ivory-like products.

She revealed a trick that ivory dealers often adopt, which is displaying and carrying fake ivory products to avoid police officers’ suspicion. Authentic ivory products are only introduced when mutual trust is built between traders and buyers.

It is so nice of her that she even tells us how to differentiate authentic and fake ivory products.

“Authentic ivory products must be concealed carefully to prevent not only police officers’ suspicion and also thieves. An authentic ivory bracelet could be sold at thousands of dollars. Who do not want good cash?” H. says. 

Believing that we want to buy authentic ivory jewelries, she makes a phone call to her husband to bring authentic ones from home to show us. Among those ivory items, the experienced dealers also include a package with an address in Dong Thap province on it. Such shipment is among many others that have been successfully shipped across Vietnam, according to H.

She assures us that the shipments encounter no difficulties when boarding on trains or planes. “I once carried a bunch of ivory bracelets to the airplane without any troubles,” she adds.

Before we leave, she also gives us her number, telling me to reach her if I need anything ‘bigger’. To prove her capacity of offering such products, she shows me some images of whole elephant tusk, which she has sold recently.

She also complains over a pending a dozens-of-thousand-dollar deal for a large elephant teeth due to strict surveillance of local authorities during the Coffee Festival.

Her statement is also affirmed by other ivory dealers in Don village. They all tell us to wait for a few days after being asked for a whole tusk. 

Ivory Dealers Join E-Commerce

Apart from the ivory capital, various souvenir outlets in famous tourist attractions across Vietnam also display ivory products. The venues include but not limited to Ben Thanh market in Ho Chi Minh City, Bao Dai Palace in Da Lat city, Lam Dong province.

In order to reach more customers, ivory market, despite a black one, also go for e-commerce.

Ivory Dealers Go Digital

After voicing our need for a tailor-made ivory sculpture, an owner of a souvenir outlet in Nguyen Van Cu street in Buon Ma Thuot city, Dak Lak province told us to add his account in Zalo, a familiar social network to Vietnamese people, to work on the trade deal.

A few days later, N. – the outlet owner – sends me a picture of a 4-kilo elephant tusk which he assures that it matches perfectly the size of the sculpture we want.

While N. keeps persuading us to close the deal, a message from G., a Lao dealer living in Vietnam, also arrives, urging us to send detailed description of the sculpture we want.

Similar to N., G. uses Zalo as a trading platform to sell the prohibited products. She has a professional selling procedure. “You need to know what you want first, then tell me about it. I will send you pictures of similar products for you to choose. After you agree on a product, you can send me deposit,” G. suggests.

Hectic Ivory Market Only

Ivory dealers not only use Zalo as a mean of communication, but they also use it as an online store.

NP., a dealer in Buon Me Thuot city, Dak Lak province, posts a few statuses advertising his ivory products, both raw material and elaborately carved products, on Zalo a day. With a wide range of products at various prices, his virtual store seems more diverse than any stores we have visited during our trip to the province. 

Besides Dak Lak, online stores selling ivory products are pretty common in various localities, especially metropolises such as Ho Chi Minh City. The online ivory stores are no less professional than any other stores in social networks. Dealers post pictures and videos of their products every day.

With substantial profit from selling ivory, a souvenir outlet owner in An Binh street, district 5, Ho Chi Minh City also does a part time job of selling the products to anyone with a demand of owning those.

After being acknowledged that we are looking for a whole tusk for carving a sculpture, he sends me a picture of African ivory, which he vows that it comes from Africa.

“The price for raw ivory is 30 million Vietnamese dong for a kilogram. If you agree, please make deposit. I will tell my people in Hanoi to send me the shipment then I will deliver it to you,” he instructs me.

Dealers even work with multiple logistic firms to provide customers with various choices of shipping services.

Apart from Facebook and Zalo, ivory products even show up on big online retail platforms. For example, when searching for the keywords ‘ivory’ in Sendo.vn, one of the largest digital trading platforms in Vietnam, one might see hundreds of results.

After contacting the shop owners on Sendo, we try to make an appointment with them to see the products in our own eyes. Meeting with them, we are overwhelmed with the products’ diversity. According to them, what they post online are just ‘for show’ as they even have much more, as long as customers reveal what they look for.

Answering Vietnamplus on marketing and selling elephant ivory on social networks and digital trading platform, a representative from Ho Chi Minh City Public Security Department said: “Firstly, we must be clear that ivory trading is illegal. Even when one sells fake ivory products, it is still illegal as advertising wildlife products is against current governing laws”. 

Ivory products win customers’ favour due their false belief that ivory can chase away evil spirits and bring luck to bearers. This blind faith, along with lenient regulations over wildlife trafficking, has taken away many lives of innocent elephants.

From a Blind Faith

Searching for ‘ivory products’ on social networks and digital trading platforms, one might see plenty of ads indicating the miraculous effects of elephant ivory.

In order to attract customers, dealers continually fraudulently claim that ivory jewelries are lucky charms, which could bring their owners good business deals, power, romantic relationships while chasing away evil spirits and bad lucks.

Showing Vietnamplus journalists meticulously carved ivory bracelets, N., a vendor in Ben Thanh market, Ho Chi Minh City, affirmed “These bracelets could control bearers’ blood pressure and chase away evil spirits haunting you. Wearing those, you will be very healthy”.

The false claims on ivory products’ extraordinary impacts have drawn great attention from consumers regardless of their social backgrounds.

Ivory trading is among major factors driving elephants to the brink of extinction. 

Even those with good education background are deceived by false claims of miraculous effects of ivory products, leading to tragic deaths of thousands of elephants worldwide every year.

To Deaths of Innocent Elephants

The study, “From tusk to trinket: persistent illegal ivory markets in Vietnam,” documents surveys recently carried out at 852 retail outlets in 13 locations and 60 individual sellers on 17 online platforms.

Although selling ivory is illegal in Vietnam, researchers found more than 10,500 items for sale, demonstrating the persistence of the ivory retail market.

The question is how such a great amount of ivory products could freely circulate in the market.

Da Lat city in Lam Dong province has been identified as a hotspot of ivory trading nationwide. In recent years, the municipal authorities have accelerated inspection and control over ivory trading activities within the localities. Thus, ivory products are no longer displayed publicly in souvenir outlets. However, they have not really gone but moved to hidden shelves in local jewelry and gem stores.

As observing five random jewelry and gem stores in Nguyen Thi Minh Khai road, Da Lat Central Market and La Tulipe Mall, we discover that one might easily find products made from elephants’ ivory and fur once asking. 

Similarly, the market in Ho Chi Minh City is no less vibrant. Stores selling ivory products are located everywhere, from traditional markets to shopping malls.

An owner of NT. gem store in An Dong shopping mall, after showing us various ivory products, whispered in our ears “We have all kinds of ivory products. Just send me pictures of what you like, we will deliver them to you”.

In order to avoid local authorities’ inspection, they only introduce the prohibited products after carefully verify customers. They also tell the buyers to keep their head down to avoid troubles for the both sides.

“We have to conceal those products very carefully or else we will be captured right away”, N., a vendor in Ben Thanh market, Ho Chi Minh City whispers.

“It is customers with continual demand for ivory who indirectly cause elephants’ deaths”

Ama Kong is dubbed as ‘King of Elephants’ in Vietnam for his natural ability of domesticating wild elephants. His love for elephants has been passed down to his kids and grandkids.

One of Ama Kong’s kids Kham Phet Lao tells Vietnamplus reporter “Back in those days when my grandfather was still alive, anyone who kill elephants might be subject to strict punishments, even death penaly.”

Then he looks down with a sad face and says, “It is customers with continual demand for ivory who indirectly cause elephants’ deaths”. 

According to a chief officer of the Environment Police Division under Ho Chi Minh City’s Department of Public Security, they often encounter difficulties in dealing with ivory trafficking mostly because of their limited human resource.

“There is a lot of information about ivory dealers on social networks. We have also received information from social organisations. However, with only three officers in the Environment Police Division, we cannot handle all of that. Meanwhile, we also have to handle other crimes relating to the environment,” he added.

The situation is not better in Dak Lak province. One month following our reporting on ivory trading activities within the localities, we only receives head shakes from the provincial public security sectors.

“We have inspected the venues but we could not verify the cases. So we cannot capture them,” they say.

It could be seen that there is a paradox between our easy access to ivory products and relevant authorities’ difficulties in capturing and handling the cases. 

Given the complicated accelerations of ivory trading activities in Vietnam, the local authorities’ efforts to prevent and fight against the situation encounter numerous difficulties.

Vietnamplus had an interview with Bui Thi Ha, vice director of Education for Nature on the issue. 

Please give the real picture about illicit trading of ivory and ivory byproducts in Vietnam?

According to an assessment by the Education for Nature (ENV), the current illegal trading of ivory and its byproducts in Vietnam is very complicated. Vietnam is not only a promising market for ivory consumption but also an important transshipment place in the trafficking of wild animals to other regional countries.

From 2010 to 2018, EVN recorded some 150 cases of trafficking of over 53 tonnes of ivory. Of the amount, more than 30 cases with a total weight of over 500kg of ivory each were seized at both border gates and seaports.

However, the trading of ivory now is not as openly done as in the past in many traditional village markets, but functional agencies have still been able to detect quite a few of them and have seized a big amount of ivory.

Besides that, the internet has become a means for ivory traders to do their business illegally.

I have to admit that the seizure of illegal ivory only reduces the benefits for the trading criminals, and doesn’t deter related crimes.

Why is Vietnam a “centre” or transhipment point for cross-border ivory trafficking?

Vietnam is situated in a very good position for the trafficking of ivory in Southeast Asia.

From 2010 to 2018, some 150 trafficking cases were detected and seized, and traffickers in only 30 cases were brought to court. And only traffickers involved in 10 cases were sentenced to prison.

Though the amount of ivory seized was high, the handling of such illegal trading was very limited. From EVN’s point of view, Vietnamese functional agencies should get more involved in the fight against illegal ivory trafficking, and traffickers should be given due punishments.

Can you elaborate on your suggestion that Vietnam should take stronger legal measures to “fill the void” in ivory trafficking?

In my opinion, the best deterrent is to give the traffickers heavy sentences.

I should say that the ENV has many times informed Vietnamese functional agencies about Vietnamese ivory traffickers on the internet. However, in many cases, these agencies have not properly evaluated the level of seriousness of those trafficking acts.

Adding to that, at present, Vietnam is keeping some 50 tonnes of ivory that has been seized in State storage, and the authorities have not yet adopted any measures to solve this problem.

I should also say that in 2016, at the onset of the Hanoi international conference on anti-wildlife trafficking, Vietnam destroyed more than two tonnes of elephant ivory and 70kg of rhino horns which were illegally brought into Vietnam. Such action taken by the Vietnamese authorities has been highly acclaimed by foreign countries.

The ENV’s point of view is very clear: all countries should join hands in the fight against the illegal hunting and trafficking of both elephants and Rhinos.

Do you think that Vietnam’s Criminal Code on giving heavy sanctions to wildlife traffickers, particularly elephant ivory, is strong enough?

Under the 2015 Vietnamese Criminal Code which came into force on January 1, 2018, any trafficker found trafficking more than 2kg of elephant ivory will be sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment. This is a demonstration of Vietnam’s political will in the fight against such serious crimes. 

However, from the ENV’s point of view, we suggest that Vietnam should focus more on detecting and giving due sanctions to the ringleaders of elephant ivory, rhino and products from other wild animals.

What’s more important, Vietnam should take action to prevent the selling, buying and consuming of elephant ivory and give due sanctions to the culprits.

In addition, the ENV also encourages Vietnamese authorities to destroy a part of the elephant ivory being kept in storage. Such an action will demonstrate the country’s will to give harsh punishments to elephant ivory trafficking.

Thank you!


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