By Louise Boyle, The Independent
Ivory trafficking has shifted to Cambodia after a crackdown on the illegal trade in China and neighbouring countries, according to a new report.
A year-long investigation by the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC), published on Thursday, found that criminal networks have moved away from China, Vietnam and Laos after increased law enforcement led to a reduction in the sale of ivory.
However traffickers have since redirected their attentions to more vulnerable regions.
Sarah Stoner, WJC’s director of intelligence, said: “Inevitably, crime has gone underground and is resurfacing in countries with less law enforcement capacity to tackle wildlife crime, such as Cambodia.”
There are an estimated 350,000 elephants left in Africa with 10-15,000 killed each year by poachers. The illegal ivory trade is worth more than $20bn a year.
The WJC report is based on the findings of “Operation Jeopardy” which began last May. The operation found evidence of Cambodia as a new hotspot for ivory carving and manufacturing, aimed at Chinese tourists.
The country had not previously been on the radar as an illegal ivory hub, the report noted.
China’s domestic ivory trade ban came into effect in 2017 and along with it came ramped-up policing.
It led to a shift in the dynamics of wildlife crime in the region as prices and demand for raw ivory dropped, leading criminal networks to switch to processed ivory which is easier to transport.
The WJC investigation gathered video evidence of the illegal production and open sale of ivory in Cambodia at stores in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, operated by Chinese traffickers, offering carved ivory and other wildlife products.
Using a wood manufacturing business as a cover story, one factory was mass-producing carved ivory jewellery using computer-operated machinery. Tiger teeth and claws were also being sold on the premises.
The facility was still operational in March despite the number of Chinese tourists having sharply declined due to coronavirus lockdowns.
The investigation also found “a strong relationship with Chinese traders operating within Cambodia who originated from the Fujian province”. This south-eastern region of China is significant as previous WJC investigations found high-level wildlife brokers in Vietnam also from Fujian, “one of China’s most prominent ivory processing hubs”.
The intelligence gathered in Cambodia was sent to a Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team from the NGO Wildlife Alliance who raided the premises.
Seven suspects, five Chinese and two Cambodian nationals, were arrested and ivory, tiger bones, pangolin scales and dried seahorses seized.
One Chinese national was later charged with wildlife offences and is in prison in Phnom Penh awaiting trial. The individual faces up to five years in prison and a fine between $2,500 and $25,000.
According to the report, just last month WJC investigators were offered wildlife products by traffickers such as raw ivory tusks for $1,600 per kg.
It is difficult to get a clear picture of smuggling routes but investigators believe that ivory products are mostly secreted into Cambodia overland from Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.
Some traffickers alluded to Vietnam as the country where ivory is processed. One trader told investigators he preferred to smuggle overland “due to tight controls by law enforcement at the port in Sihanoukville”.
The WJC report said there was reliable intelligence that “significant stockpiles” of ivory were being held in Vietnam, close to the Cambodian border.
In the Greater Mekong subregion of southeast Asia, more than 15 tonnes of ivory has been seized from 2016 to 2019.
WJC called for international law enforcement cooperation to tackle ongoing ivory trafficking in the area.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to a “stockpiling” of ivory and pangolin scales by traffickers who are being hampered by stricter border control measures and travel restrictions.
“The situation presents an ideal opportunity for law enforcement agencies to target and close the retail outlets and hubs that continue to facilitate this illegal trade before travel restrictions are lifted,” the report said.