Karl Ammann – exposing the grim reality of online ivory trading

The hidden iniquity of the African Ranger Awards
Karl Ammann, The Daily Maverick
February 6, 2019


See link for audio.

Rangers risk their lives while Chinese tech giants facilitate illegal wildlife trade. Instead of dealing with the problem, last year the former head of Alibaba, Jack Ma, was in Cape Town handing out African Ranger Awards to men and women laying their lives on the line to defeat poachers.

The awards were made by the Paradise Foundation, co-chaired by Pony Ma, chairman of Tencent (31% owned by Naspers) which owns WeChat, and Jack Ma, whose Taobao e-commerce platform is also used by the syndicates trafficking in illegal wildlife.

Pony Ma is listed as the richest man in China with a fortune of US$37.3-billion and Jack Ma is second with US$35.7-billion.

The US$3,000-a-ranger awards for “threats and challenges overcome”, handed out through the Paradise and Alibaba foundations to 50 African rangers, totalled US$150,000. This is the amount these two men could earn in a single afternoon.

It was good PR but deeply cynical, too.

For a few years, evidence has been piling up that on a wide range of accounts on Alibaba Platforms (mostly Taobao) trade was increasing in products like ivory and rhino horn products, bear bile, hornbill caskets, pangolin scales and tiger bone jewellery.

When these “officially” highly controlled and illegal items are involved, in most cases sourcing of the product takes place using keywords or emojis to bypass very superficial filters put in place to prevent trade of wildlife products. Often, after pinpointing a dealer, the seller stipulates that the negotiations move to WeChat, the flagship of Tencent Holding. Their voice messages are less traceable.

Here’s a Dropbox link to the items being offered for sale on these sites.

This trade is now many times greater than what is offered over the counter in shops. It includes Chinese traders based in neighbouring countries (more than 40 in Laos) which market their merchandise this way.

When I ordered some tiger bone items for DNA analysis (to find out what is real or how much of the tiger bone jewellery is actually lion bone), the items were delivered without any problems to my hotel reception. In most cases, a prominent Chinese courier did the drops.

At no point, travelling domestically in China or entering or leaving, did I see any sniffer dogs and I had no problem getting the items to a DNA lab in Europe.

Given what I was finding, it seemed appropriate to question the African Ranger Awards. I mailed few of the judges of the awards committee, suggesting it was absurd that the parties who owned the communication platforms that made the trade possible were feting African rangers risking their lives to prevent it.

My mail was expanded into a blog by a conservationist and this was read by someone in the party of Jack Ma. This resulted in communication channels being opened to executives at the Alibaba headquarters.

Via conference calls, mail exchanges and the above Dropbox link, I presented them with a range of evidence, including the above link. Their knowledge appeared to be extremely limited and it was clear they were not trying very hard to curb these transactions.

They indicated that they’d met with Western NGOs based in China about this. Given that foreign NGOs must register and be under Chinese government supervision, however, these organisations have become very reluctant to raise conservation challenges. That wasn’t a route that would produce solutions.

There is a precedent for positive action, however. In 2015 the Kering group, a luxury product manufacturer that owns Gucci, sued Alibaba in a New York court for millions of dollars for copyright infringement in selling counterfeit Gucci bags and other luxury items.

An out-of-court settlement was reached and Alibaba set up a “joint task force” and a special division to deal with intellectual property rights issues on their trading platforms.

In 2018 China Daily reported that this enforcement department reported 5,453 suspected cases and out of it confirmed 63 criminal cases, which resulted in the arrest of 129 people, of which 104 received suspended sentences.

It is very rare for corporate executives in China to question government policy and law enforcement. One exception is the case of a manufacturer who had been caught twice and was still free on bail.

According to Ye Zhiefel, chief of Alibaba’s intellectual property right protection centre “this shows the lenient punishment, including detention, could not threaten them”.

When I suggested the same approach could be used in the illegal trade in wildlife products, the answer was that “due to the corporate secrecy policies we are unable to provide statistics around the volume of wildlife-related products”.

In the context of sites offering illegal wildlife products on Taobao platforms, there are no indications of prosecutions and arrests.

When I asked if, as part of a documentary film, we could film them taking down accounts as well as doing some interviews, there was no response.

There was also no response to my suggestion that, instead of my researchers handing over all their data and having to worry about repercussions, Alibaba recruit them as independent third-party auditors to provide the relevant evidence they had collected.

I provided Alibaba with updates about the trade in mammoth ivory, which is legal in China and is a way to launder elephant ivory through WeChat. The last two such updates to the Alibaba headquarters have not been acknowledged.

So the grisly online business of animal part sales continues. Most of the trafficking/trading happens through a handful of different accounts on Taobao. If one account is suspended, they move to the next one without any further repercussions. The message is clear: this is a high-reward, low-risk business.

I am concerned we have now reached a point that, without a hard-hitting Kering-type of approach, Alibaba and Tencent will continue to be complicit in the accelerating collapse of the world’s biodiversity. Could a solution be to classify animals like rhinos, pangolins, elephants, lions and tigers a common good and be listed as “world heritage species”?

Some environmental lawyers should rise to the challenge with a Kering-type argument.

Meanwhile, in another six months, we will again witness an African Ranger Award ceremony where prominent Western conservation judges and VIPs fly in to celebrate and drink at yet another five-star hotel.

The underlying message is that the problem rests with Africa and that with better rangers, doing better jobs, we would not have a problem.

This is absurd. The risks the rangers take are precisely because of huge demand in the East being enabled by Alibaba and Tencent.

It’s time to call a spade a spade.

Karl Ammann is an independent filmmaker, photographer and author who has lived in Kenya for 40 years, documenting conservation issues and, more recently, concentrating on the illegal wildlife trade. www.karlammann.com