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Special Report

Ivory Cybercrime

A Dark World

As the global call for a complete ban of the ivory trade inside China continues, the authorities have been cracking down on the illegal trade. But a NewsChina investigation found that the trade has simply shifted online

By NewsChina Updated Mar.1

Photo by CFP

December 30 will see the expiration of the previously issued Ivory Collection License offered by the China State Forestry Administration (SFA) to those domestic traders allowed to sell legal ivory products inside China. In a telephone interview with NewsChina in mid-December, Zhang Dehui, an SFA official, said that whether or not those old licenses would remain valid afterwards would not be publicized until the date has passed. 

But despite the lack of official confirmation, NewsChina was told by various inside sources that have close contacts with the forestry authorities, including wildlife protection groups and some legal ivory trade dealers, that it is highly likely that the license system will be revoked. If that is the case, under China’s Wildlife Protection law the ivory trade will be completely illegal, whatever the source. 

This long-anticipated result may cheer up wildlife protection advocates, but it’s unlikely that the illegal ivory trade will disappear overnight. The SFA stated on its website in February 2016 that the online illegal trade of wildlife products had seen a drastic increase in 2015. According to a recently-released report, “China Wildlife Illegal Online Trade Research,” by the Internet Research Institute (IRI), an independent think tank focusing on Internet information analysis, from January 2015 through May 2016, as much as 48 percent of the total illegal ivory trade was conducted online 
“The Internet has given wider access to sellers and buyers [in the illegal ivory trade] who were previously limited by geographical distance,” the report concluded. According to China’s law and regulations, any form of the online trading of ivory is illegal, yet due to the secrecy, tracking difficulties and technological obstacles, cyberspace provides a major loophole for illegal dealings.  

Secret Deals 

Illegal traders use social media and other online platforms for two reasons: firstly, it can expand their ability to exhibit their products, and secondly, to make secret and safe contact with buyers away from legal supervision. 

The dealers have coined their own slang to avoid being detected. For example, the words “ivory” or “elephant tusks” are replaced by over 20 different terms including “African plastic,” “yellow material,” “white plastics,” “jelly” and so on.  

Over the last decade or so, a large amount of products made from endangered species have been observed in domestic e-commerce and antique/collectables websites in China. But according to a 2015 report by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, as a result of stricter enforcement and management by the government authorities and websites concerned, the traders of illegal wildlife products are increasingly shifting from websites to social media networks. These networks offer higher privacy and thus represent challenges for enforcement and monitoring. Although the trade volume is much larger online, evidence-collecting during prosecution is hard to attain, posing difficulties for law enforcement actions. 

The free instant messaging service WeChat was launched by Tencent in early 2011. It has become China’s most popular mobile social networking platform and according Tencent, it has 864 million active monthly users as of the third quarter of 2016. The TRAFFIC report indicated that WeChat covers more than 90 percent of the country’s smartphones and directly facilitates sales transactions worth some 11 billion yuan (US$1.6b). With restricted visitor access, anonymous exchanges, and payment features, WeChat has attracted many illegal business dealers that previously operated through traditional websites and offline platforms. A lack of adequate law enforcement and supervision has allowed illegal sales to thrive. 

Traders post photos or videos of ivory in their accounts and other channels on WeChat. The photos of ivory products sometimes are layered directly with information including prices and quality descriptions; no negotiation over prices is accepted and traders can accept payment via WeChat Wallet or bank transfer; and in the end, the ivory is delivered through courier companies.  

Li Lishu from the China office of Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS explained to NewsChina that as well as overlaying the photos with text so that the words go undetected, sellers also use emoji of animals such as birds or tigers to indicate helmet hornbill and tiger products to buyers. “Thus in most situations, it is very hard to detect those illegal trades through keyword filtering; instead the social platform companies have to encourage their users to report such illegal dealings.” 

Cheng Yang, 39, an art collector from Hohhot, Inner Mongolia Autonomous region used to be a fan of ivory arts and crafts. “In the past, ivory products accounted for over 20 percent of my collection,” said Cheng. During a recent interview, Cheng told our reporter the major way for him and his fellow collector friends buy ivory is through WeChat. “Most buyers are in their thirties or forties, and are chasing fashionable trends,” explained Cheng: “The product exhibition and price negotiation are normally done within a temporarily-set up ‘friends group.’ Once the bidding is done and the money exchanged, the temporary group is dissolved.” These rapid deals are unlikely to be noticed by the social platform technicians responsible for blocking and filtering illegal information.  

The exclusive nature of WeChat communication thus allows sellers and buyers to easily conduct their deals in secret.  

Control Attempts 

A number of e-commerce and social media platforms, including Alibaba and Tencent, have made efforts to ensure their platforms are not being used to facilitate the illegal wildlife trade. This has included introducing more robust policies prohibiting the illegal trade in wildlife, removing advertisements and, in some cases, blocking users who breach their policies, as well as collaborating with enforcement agencies to crack down on any traders identified.  

Campaigns to stop illegal ivory trade on online commerce platforms started as early as 2008 in China, when Alibaba began a campaign against illegal wildlife trades on its popular Taobao platform. Netizens can report any illegal wildlife trade on Taobao including tiger bone, ivory, rhino horn and other rare animal products.  

Ma Chenyue from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) recalled to the reporter this December that within 30 days of the launch of the joint campaign by IFAW and Alibaba in 2008, a total of around 3,000 online wildlife products reported by the public proved to be illegal and finally the listings were removed by Alibaba.  

Ever since then, the sale of ivory products has been formally eliminated on Taobao, and Alibaba started to invest more heavily in technology to supervise online wildlife trading on Taobao. “At present, a special team within Alibaba’s online security department is designated to monitor the illegal wildlife trade,” added Ma, “The company has set up cooperation mechanisms with the country’s public security department, the Endangered Species Import and Export Management Office [the Chinese enforcement authority of CITES] to crack down on the illegal wildlife trade.” With the strong supervision enforcement, the ivory trade has been effectively curbed on Taobao so far. 

Since May 2015, as more and more ivory trading moved to social media platforms, Tencent, the owner of communication services including WeChat and QQ, launched its “Tencent for the Planet” campaign, an initiative that led to Tencent closing a group of social media accounts believed to be involved in the illegal online wildlife trade based on reports filed by users. NewsChina was told by an inside source who asked to be quoted anonymously that considering the enormous number of WeChat users in China and the number of ivory products sold through the platform, unless significant action was taken, it could become critically significant for the illegal ivory trade in China. 

According to the inside source, Tencent depends on netizens’ reports to discover the trade. “Out of consideration of users’ privacy, we usually won’t monitor users’ posts and private conversations,” the source said to the reporter, “but we will check each whistle blower’s evidence to see if the information is true. We have our own standard to decide whether the WeChat user’s account should be shut down or the case be sent to law enforcement agencies.”  

In September 2016, according to China Central Television reports, the Forest Police Administration cracked down on two criminal gangs dealing in illegal ivory in Henan and Guangdong Provinces with the aid of reports from Tencent and Alibaba.  

“Since 2015, I have noticed through participating in official conferences that the authorities have started to put a heavier emphasis on the online ivory trade,” said Li Lishu from WCS-China: “And a few cases were solved in 2016 thanks to joint enforcement efforts. 

Zhang Dehui from the SFA commented that China enjoys a leading position in the online battle against the illegal wildlife trade. “We have more experience in this regard than other countries since the market here is enormous,” said Zhang. “The online trading part is supervised jointly by the Industrial and Commercial Bureau and Office for Cyberspace Affairs, but for most criminal cases involving the online trade, a joint mechanism involving the collaboration of six or seven different government departments is often adopted in practice.” 

But the various online platforms have not yet set up a similar joint mechanism to chase the illegal wildlife trade. An ivory trader will typically use a whole variety of services, such as Baidu’s Tieba forum, Sina’s weibo microblog, the QQ messaging service, Tencent’s WeChat and Alibaba’s Taobao. But Baidu and Sina have done little to take action against the illegal ivory trade. In addition, according to the inside source, it is necessary to access and combine all the information to combat a single illegal ivory trade case. “But so far interactive mechanisms are a long way from being set up,” added the source. 

International Cooperation 

In September 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama, made a historic joint statement, committing to enacting “nearly complete bans on ivory imports and exports, including significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies,” and promised to “take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.” In July 2016, the US government formally banned the trade in ivory. But as of yet, China has not made any pledges on banning completely the domestic trade on ivory.  

Some Chinese officials retain their old mentality of protecting wildlife for the sake of utilizing them as resources, (see “At a Turning Point,” NewsChina Volume 100), which has slowed progress in introducing a complete ban.  

Poaching is the most acute threat to Africa’s elephants. Data from the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), managed by TRAFFIC, show that there’s been a steadily increasing trend in the illegal ivory trade from 2004 onwards, with a major upsurge in 2009, and that 2011 was the worst year ever for large ivory seizures. Tens of thousands of elephants continue to be killed illegally every year and elephant populations remain in decline across most of Africa. China and Thailand are blamed by the international community as the major destinations for the illegal ivory trade.  

Historically in China, ivory carving was considered a delicate and high-status art, and there are still a significant number of artists working in the field. Meng Xianlin, executive director-general of the Endangered Species Import and Export Management Office claimed to the Xinhua News Agency in 2013 that most of the ivory trade in China is involved with this traditional art. Preserving this cultural heritage has been stated as the major reason that China hasn’t issued a complete ban on the ivory trade. 
Zhang Dawei, 36, a Beijing-based carving artist told NewsChina the majority of the ivory carving market at present is occupied by low-end machine-made mass-produced products rather than the rare and pricey hand-made carvings produced with the delicate skills of the past. The price for raw ivory on the domestic black market, according to Zhang, is quite low, from 10 to 30 yuan per gram (US$1.45 to $4.34) in the past few years. Although he has intermittently tried ivory carving, Zhang says that he prefers bamboo carving. In his words, bamboo carving captures the spirit of scholars, and ivory that of aristocrats.  

From an artistic point of view, ivory is not irreplaceable. “Even if ivory is banned for trading, artists in this field can find other material to continue their art, for example, mammoth tusks, bamboo, wood, ox horn, deer antlers and hippos’ teeth [also illegal],” admitted Zhang, “But no material has exactly the same effects compared to ivory.” Ivory is more heavy and moist, and people treasure it because of its connection with the imperial court in the past.  

Over the past decade, the hidden market in ivory has remained lucrative. When enforcement strengthens, the price of ivory goes up, when it relaxes, prices go down. “Some sellers have left or have been arrested in recent years, but there are always new dealers coming in,” Zhang concluded. “Only a complete ban on ivory can reduce the trading amount of ivory in China.”
Ivory Trade Ban Timeline  
1973: Asian elephants are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), banning any form of trade internationally 
1976: African elephants are listed on Appendix II of CITES, with strict rules for trading internationally introduced 
1981: China accedes to CITES, indicating a complete ban on Asian elephants 
1988: China’s Wildlife Law issued which lists the Asian elephant as a top priority for protection 
1989: African elephants are listed on Appendix I of CITES, banning any form of trade internationally 
1990: China bans international trade of African elephants and their products  
1991: China starts to make a registration system for its domestically-owned existing raw ivory stock 
1997: With CITES permission, three African countries sell 80 tons of ivory stockpiles to China 
2004: China adopts China Wildlife Trading and Management License system to regulate ivory products 
2008: With CITES permission, China imports 62 tons of ivory stockpile from four African countries, namely Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa  
2011: SFA issues announcement on regulating ivory manufacturing and selling inside China 
2012: China Auction Industry Association announces only antique ivory products with certification from the SFA and the Cultural Relics Bureau can be auctioned 
2014: China destroys 6.1 tons of confiscated ivory in public 
Feb. 2015: The SFA announces a one-year ban on ivory crafts  
May 2015: The Chinese government destroys 6.6 tons of ivory  
Sept. 2015: China-US summit announces plans to fade out domestic ivory trade 
Oct. 2015: China issues a one-year ban on trophy ivory importation  
March 2016: China issues an additional two-year ban on ivory craft work and trophy ivory