Banner image: Elephant ivory tusks / Credit: James St. John on Creative Commons.
Before the pandemic, Mr L would never approach buyers unsolicited. To buy from him, you would have to show up and prove you were a genuine buyer. But this year, according to an undercover investigator with frequent contact with illegal wildlife traders, Mr L is actively reaching out to customers to clear his inventory – a few pairs of African ivory tusks.
In March, four other sellers in central Vietnam also broke their usual protocols to pitch a variety of products to our contact, from raw tusks to ivory rings and bracelets. These traders used to prefer meeting in person, but now a few text messages via Zalo can be enough to arrange delivery within the country.
On Facebook, similar offers are common. After a few searches based on the word “ivory” (ngà voi in Vietnamese), we found countless ads for African raw tusks, ivory necklaces, bracelets, chopsticks or even milk tea straws, most of which guarantee nationwide delivery.
“Very cheap sale off, please message me,” wrote one account selling a plethora of ivory carvings on March 25, publicly. On an e-commerce website, ivory combs, pens and carvings are advertised online, together with other wildlife commodities such as tiger skins and claws.
As a key transit point and a consumer market second only to China, Vietnam has recorded the highest number of ivory seizures in the world. Experts believe there has been a shift in Vietnam’s wildlife trade activity since the pandemic. In 2020, ENV recorded 401 violations related to ivory, more than double the 184 cases in 2019. Most of the violations were related to online advertising.
“We have conducted market surveys where we’ve seen a lot of physical locations have shut, a lot of which appeared to have shut permanently. Meanwhile, there has been an exponential increase in online trade in all commodities in general,” said TRAFFIC Vietnam office director Sarah Ferguson.
Retail outlets selling ivory jewelry and trinkets to Chinese tourists were rampant across Vietnam before the pandemic. In 2017, TRAFFIC surveyed 13 popular ivory markets in the country, mostly tourist hotspots frequented by Chinese nationals such as Ha Long, Mong Cai and Nha Trang; and found over 6,000 ivory items publicly displayed at 852 outlets.
Yet last December, when investigators from WCS visited two of the same 13 locations, they found Nhi Khe and Mong Cai “quiet as ghost towns”. Since borders were closed last March, international visitors to Vietnam have dropped over 98%.
Efforts to export to China have also failed. None of the ivory traders we spoke to could guarantee delivery across the border like they used to. Investigators who work directly with traders at the wholesale level reported the same. “In the last 12 months, we have been offered much less ivory than we have in the past,” said Stoner.
The commission believes Covid-19 travel restrictions have exacerbated an ongoing problem before the pandemic – stockpiling. A report last April listed Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia as countries with large ivory stockpiles. In Cambodia, where Chinese nationals can now fly in, traders are waiting for spiked airfares to drop for the goods to move again. During a trip in January to Nghe An, we were able to witness one such stockpile, where traders like Mr L and Mr N get their inventory. Mr L admitted trade has been slow. “We don’t take much from the stock. We don’t want to hold the goods,” he said.
Stoner is unsure whether the products offered to her team are from stockpiles or newly arrived, but looking at seizure statistics, there has also been a clear disruption in ivory supply from Africa. Vietnam is the biggest destination of ivory in the world and our analysis of 95 seizures in the past decade showed that international shipments contribute to over 80% of the volume of ivory trafficked to the country, mainly from Africa. Since the pandemic, Vietnam has not seized a single ivory item arriving from Africa via this once bustling route. All seizures this year were of small quantities, at jewelry shops or during land transit.
“Shipping is the least affected sector by Covid-19, compared to airways and land transport. However, shipping has also endured many restrictions. For example, exports and imports are affected due to container scarcity, increased cost and delayed shipping. When smugglers use maritime routes, they often hide contraband in products exported via official channels. Because using official channels is already challenging, it could be one of the reasons why there were no maritime seizures in 2020,” said a Wildlife Conservation Society representative.