The Chinese ivory smugglers in Mozambique
12 Dec 2013

The growth in the illegal trade in ivory and the involvement of Chinese citizens is a cause of major concern both internationally and in China. In late October 2013, customs officers in Xiamen, a city in south east China, seized a 12 tonne shipment of ivory worth 600-million yuan (more than R1-billion) – the biggest ivory bust in Chinese history. Days later, 1.8 tonnes of ivory were found in the Tanzanian home of a Chinese man.

The most common way in which Chinese get involved in the ivory trade in Africa is as souvenir hunters. Employees sent here by their companies, migrants running small shops – many of them take small quantities of ivory on trips home. Ivory is cheap here – a bracelet might cost the equivalent of R700, but sell for up to R17,000 on the black market in China. In Asia, a kilogram of ivory could cost up to R50,000 on the black market, but poachers in impoverished areas of Africa will sell it for about R500, and it still won’t be too expensive by the time it’s reached Beijing.

It’s not just the huge profits that attract customers – they also know the risks are low. “In theory legitimate ivory products can be sold locally, they just can’t be exported,” said Baldeu Chande, an official at Quirimbas National Park in the north of the country.

Mozambique’s laws on ivory are weak, and the situation is worsened by rampant corruption. Legally each type of animal has a value. Poachers who are caught have to pay that value in compensation, but are freed in order to get the money and are only jailed if they can’t pay. And in reality poachers are rarely caught and those that are slip through the net.


Meanwhile, corruption makes a mockery of the rules on sale and export of ivory.

“Zhu” works at the airport in Maputo: “Give the customs people 2,000 metical [about R700] and they won’t check your luggage.” As long as you’re happy to spend a little on bribes at the airport, he said, there’s no need to worry.

On September 28 Oxpeckers reporters watched as two Asian-looking men at the airport were stopped at customs after three officials found something inside one of their plastic bags. After some negotiation, one of the Asian men 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 bring more than one kilo [of ivory] at a time and you will be fine,” said “Chen”, a Chinese construction worker in Maputo. “Pay some money and you can go through Mozambique customs. In China, if the ivory is found, just give it to the airport official and say you don’t know it is illegal – these things are so cheap anyway.”

The souvenir hunters might only smuggle a little each, but the huge numbers of Chinese people travelling to Africa make for a huge market.

Northern frontiers

In addition, there is another another class of smugglers altogether.

The north of Mozambique is a major centre for elephant poaching. The region’s main port, Pemba, is home to many Chinese businessmen, mostly in the timber trade – shipping containers of local wood back home to China.

According to an Environmental Investigation Agency study in 2011, many of the Chinese timber firms are involved in smuggling – they do not fell timber themselves, but buy it cheaply from locals, asking no questions about whether or not it has been cut legally, then ship it back home for sale. They exist in a grey zone, taking advantages of regulatory and customs loopholes – and often they are involved in other shady businesses.

In 2011, 126 tusks were found in a container of timber belonging to a Chinese company, Tienhe, along with one rhino horn and some pangolin scales. The firm was ordered by a Mozambican court to pay a fine of US$3.5-million to compensate its local partner, Miti, and was closed in August this year.

A Miti official insisted in the local media that his company had nothing to do with their Chinese partner’s ivory smuggling. He expressed anger: “We might not have any evidence, but we know it’s not just the one company doing this. The Chinese are all at it!”

Most of the port’s Chinese traders exist in a grey area and know only too well how to work within a corrupt government. When Oxpeckers reporters paid an undercover visit to one local Chinese timber firm, they saw two uniformed Mozambicans watching Chinese soap operas on the office television.

“One is a customs officer, the other’s with the police. In theory they’re here to inspect the containers as we load them, but they just come for the bribes and to watch television,” explained a company employee, smiling.

Tienhe got caught as they failed to pay enough bribes – that was a false economy,” said “Zhou”, manager of another large Chinese timber firm. He claimed his company is the only clean Chinese firm locally, but checking online found it was involved in multiple cases of timber smuggling. The local media referred to the firm as a repeat offender.

Higher up the food chain there is a small number of more powerful smugglers. In Kenya an official with a Chinese firm said that “a lot of ivory is moved via ‘diplomatic channels’, not by us ordinary folk.”

He was referring to particular corrupt government officials who take advantage of their diplomatic flights to avoid customs and smuggle ivory. These are all high-ranking figures, and so it is rare for there to be any arrests.

In June 2013, Xinhua’s English edition reported that a Chinese diplomat and a Chinese military officer had been detained in Zambia on suspicion of smuggling 27 kilograms of ivory worth US$140,000. But there were no details on who these people actually were.

When Oxpeckers asked the Chinese embassy in Mozambique about this, the response was that “the vast majority of Chinese citizens obey Mozambique’s laws, but it is not impossible that certain individuals trade in illegal ivory. The embassy will continue its education efforts.” –

Additional reporting by Estacio Valoi

Oxpeckers works with Conservation Action Trust