A Big Step For China; Undercover Rhino Horn Trafficking Investigation “Operation Red Cloud” Marks First In Decades
Earlier this week, Elephant Action League (EAL) released a public report detailing an expansive and successful undercover investigative operation dealing with rhino poaching and the increasing demand for ivory in both China and Vietnam.
According to a Press Release issued by the organization, the 11-month intelligence gathering and investigative operation, Operation Red Cloud, was designed to expose and map the networks, the players and the means by which rhino horn is trafficked through Vietnam, and into and through China. Its goal is to create pressure on the Chinese and Vietnamese governments to act quickly, and collaboratively if possible, to work to shut down the illicit rhino horn trade.
Although completely illegal for many years, rhinoceros horn is still present and available for sale throughout China. At the same time, rhino poaching rates in African range states have increased by more than a staggering 8000% since 2007.
Vietnam is a transit country for a range of contraband including both wildlife products and illegal timber bound for China. The Vietnam route into China is used by smugglers to take advantage of lax controls and a cluster of criminal brokers based in Chinese border towns.
Vietnam itself is also a significant consumer of wildlife products, particularly rhino horn, primarily for ingredients in traditional medicine.
“Given the growing size and wealth of potential Chinese consumers, we are facing a real existential threat for rhinos, even more than that for elephants now that there are only about 25,000 rhinos left in Africa,” Andrea Crosta, EAL’s Executive Director and lead on this investigation stated in the release.
For Operation Red Cloud, in addition to off-site research and intelligence analysis, EAL investigators executed multiple field missions to China and Vietnam. EAL targeted provinces along the southern border of China including Guangxi, Guangdong, and Yunnan as well as Henan, Fujian, Beijing, and a few key locations in Vietnam.
Leveraging the experience and expertise of EAL’s investigative team, and a regional network of informants, advisors, and skilled investigative assets, Operation Red Cloud has produced actionable data on what is the latter half of the rhino horn supply chain.
The key trends found in Operation Red Cloud that will guide further action by authorities include the following:
1. Rhino horn was found in nearly all locations investigated by the EAL team. The black market for rhino horn in China is stable and strong. Rhino horn and other wildlife contraband often move from Vietnam to the Guangxi or Yunnan Provinces and then to China’s primary retail markets (Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Beijing).
2. The average price identified was between $26,000 and $40,000/kg for whole raw rhino horn, and between $34 and $70/g for cut objects.
3. Smugglers tend to use individuals to transport contraband across the border; individuals can more easily pass through the border (via a port of entry or via illicit routes) without inspection or detection.
4. Similar routes are used for all types of contraband, including illegal arm and narcotics.
5. The corruption exhibited by customs and law enforcement authorities in Vietnamese and Chinese border regions is substantial;
6. Most dealers do not hold a large inventory of rhino horn (whole, raw, or carved). Instead, the material is generally sourced on-demand and primarily sold only to familiar customers in order to avoid detection by authorities.
7. A seasoned rhino horn dealer, who is also a VP of the local Association of Collectors was allegedly involved with commanders in the Chinese military, where they used him to identify authentic wildlife products (such as rhino horn) for them to purchase, as well as allowed the Chinese navy fleet to pick up and carry wildlife contraband back to China.
8. EAL investigators also found large quantities of other wildlife products such as tiger (teeth, skins, and bones), as well as ivory, bear paws, bile and gall bladders, hawksbill turtle shells, helmeted hornbill beaks, snow leopard skins, civet cats, king cobras, wolf skin and teeth, and corals.
Much of the detailed data gathered during Operation Red Cloud only appears in a Confidential Intelligence Brief (CIB) that has been prepared and submitted to law enforcement authorities in China, Vietnam, and applicable U.S. agencies.
The CIB contains the names of key players, a broader mapping of network associates and enablers, the complete modus operandi of traffickers and traders, and concrete evidence of illegal activity uncovered during the investigation, as well as hundreds of photos and hours of relevant undercover footage.
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