In July 2019, a record seizure of wildlife products by Singapore authorities - almost 10 tonnes of elephant ivory and 12 tonnes of pangolin scales, made international news.
To obtain such quantity of ivory and scales, approximately 300 elephants and 2,000 pangolin had to be killed. The contraband was sent by Chinese smugglers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Vietnam via Singapore. The seized ivory was estimated to be worth almost 13 million US dollars, and the pangolin scales 37 million.
Frozen dead pangolin seized by the customs in Hong Kong. Pangolin's scales are prized in Chinese traditional medicine and pangolins have become the world most trafficked animal. Credit: Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden.
Despite the size of the seizure, next to nothing was written in the media about the back story of this massive shipment. In 2020, the suspects were tried in court in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in China and the case records were then released to the public.
The Species Victim Impact Statements (SVIS) Initiative has prepared a summary of the case.
It offers insights into how Chinese smuggling networks operate - a Chinese fixer living in Africa had the local knowledge and the language skills to set up the purchase, while mainland Chinese “investors” put money into getting the contraband to Vietnam and sent their own “staff” from China to the Congo.
Behind it all were shadowy kingpins based in Vietnam – one of them known as “Fat Brother”, who ultimately escaped arrest and prosecution. Most people implicated in the case were natives of, or were based in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of China. Guangxi borders Vietnam and is one of the main channels of delivery of illegal wildlife products into China.
This case also highlights the cooperation between Vietnamese and Chinese-based smugglers who work both markets - China and Vietnam are the largest consumers of pangolin scales and ivory. Vietnam is now the largest market for ivory after China cracked down on the trade. Anything smuggled into Vietnam can then be transferred to China across the porous border into Guangxi.
The key person in this case was a Congo-based Chinese businessman known as Tiger. His real name is Ma Jilin, and the moniker probably came from the fact that Ma comes from Heilongjiang province, famous for Siberian tigers. Born in 1987, Ma had previously served 18 months in jail for fraud.
Ma lived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where he tried his hand at various businesses – the court records mentioned mining and construction. Ma, however, was also a renowned agent in wildlife trade. Working with Chinese and Vietnamese clients, he provided a complete service - bought and stored the contraband, acquired CITES paperwork to launder it and then shipped it out.
According to the case records, the investigation uncovered information that a Hong Kong businessman surnamed Chen bought 10 tonnes of pangolin scales in Burundi between 2015 and 2017. At that time, Ma provided CITES documents to launder the contraband and arranged successful shipments, apparently from the DRC, to Hong Kong.
It appears that in 2016 one of Ma’s legal ventures in the DRC - construction of military barracks, failed and he ended up owing 300,000 yuan (about 46,000 USD). Ma then offered his investors from Mainland China – Lu Kun, Song Jincong and Tong Zhijian, one ton of pangolin scales to close the debt.
The Guangxi Connection
The trio of businessmen were all from Guangxi Autonomous Region. Song Jincong, born in 1985, was a university dropout. 50-year old Lu Kun had only finished middle school. University graduate Tong Zhijian was a politician in Fengchanggang City, one of China’s key maritime ports close to Vietnamese border.
The trio rejected the proposal to be repaid in pangolin scales, presumably because the scales were still in the DRC, but got the idea of selling them to Vietnamese buyers instead. One such buyer appears in court records as A Sen. It is unclear if he is a Vietnamese or a Chinese citizen.
Between 2017 and 2019, Song, Tong and Lu went to Kinshasa on several occasions to meet with Tiger Ma. Two of their subordinates – Song’s younger cousin Song Jinhang, and She Ziting were dispatched to Kinshasa to assist Ma and keep an eye on things.
In 2017, the court records show, Ma took Lu Kun, Song Jinhang and She Ziting to the homes of African suppliers to look at the merchandise – pangolin scales. It is unclear if the suppliers were Congolese or if the scales had been sourced from the DRC or elsewhere.
While in the Congo, Lu Kun, with Ma’s help, also bought 800kg of pangolin scales in the city of Lubumbashi in East of the DRC and stored them in Ma’s villa in Kinshasa.
Deforested landscape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Deforestation and poaching are the main threats to the biodiversity of the rainforests of the Congo Basin. Credit: Kudra Abdulaziz / Pixabay
Ma's villa was also being used to store several tonnes of ivory that Ma had acquired for a Vietnamese buyer, a major businessman known as Fat Brother. It is unclear if Fat Brother is Chinese or Vietnamese, but he has a Chinese name - Ruan Guangxian.
This ivory was managed by Sun Xilu - Fat Brother’s representative in the DRC, sent to Africa to work with Ma in 2018 to buy ivory. Sun was another Guangxi native. He comes from Dongxing which is part of the port city of Fengchanggang on Guangxi’s border with Vietnam.
African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), the smallest of the three species of elephants, is native to the forests of West Africa and the Congo basin. Forest elephants are essential in maintaining the functioning of the tropical forest ecosystem. The dense ivory of forest elephants is highly prized in the carving trade and the species is now critically threatened because of rampant poaching. Credit: Thomas Breuer - In the Shadows of the Congo Basin Forest.
By 2019, the stock of wildlife contraband at Ma’s Kinshasa villa reached 10 tonnes of ivory as well as 12 tonnes of pangolin scales of which Lu owned 0.8 tonnes, Tong - one tonne, and Song Jincong - 8.2 tonnes. The two remaining tonnes of scales belonged to a Vietnamese buyer, a businessman known only by his nickname - A Sen.
It appears that Lu, Tong and Song sold their shares of pangolin scales to A Sen, payable upon delivery to Vietnam. It is not known what A Sen agreed to pay for the scales, but the court records show that Tong paid Ma 320,500 yuan (50,000 USD) for one tonne. Song Jincong transferred Ma over 2,3 million yuan (355,000 USD) and 300 thousand US dollars.
Then came the problem of how to ship the contraband from the DRC to Vietnam. Tong and Ma held several meetings. One such meeting took place far from the Congo - in Dandong, on the China-North Korea border. Tong even promised Ma that if the contraband reached Vietnam safely, he would sell Ma his BMW M3 sports car.
Tong and Song’s pangolin scales, and the ivory owned by Fat Brother and managed by Sun, shared both the storage facilities - Ma’s Kinshasa villa, and the destination - Vietnam. It made sense for the two groups to combine their cargos into one shipment.
Tong, Song and Sun met in 2019, in Saigon Teahouse in Dongxing city, Guangxi, to discuss how to do this. Sun confirmed that Ma could arrange one combined shipment of ivory and pangolin scales out of the DRC’s Matadi port. The contraband had to be disguised as timber because Ma had been unable to get CITES documents to launder it, as it is illegal to ship pangolin scales for commercial use internationally.
However, Ma was short of cash to make the shipment. Money was needed to deal with the Congolese customs and to get the permits for export. He ended up getting a loan from Zheng Jilin, who was also living in the DRC at the time. Zheng borrowed 500,000 yuan (77,000 USD) against his land back in China, and was promised a 100% return within a year on his investment with Ma.
The shipment was sent from Matadi disguised as tiama (Entandrophragma spp) wood, conifer timber and wood chips. The destination was Haiphong port in Vietnam, via Singapore. The three containers were intercepted by the Singaporean authorities after a tip off from the Chinese law enforcement.
The suspects were then arrested in China – Ma in his native Heilongjiang province, others in Liaoning, Zhejiang, Guangxi and Guangdong provinces.
Every Man for Himself
During the trial, Tiger Ma portrayed himself as a simple translator who was merely providing his services to Vietnamese buyers who had to communicate with African sellers. Song and Lu claimed that they were under the impression that Ma’s pangolin scales were legal, and that they stopped dealing with Ma once they realised otherwise.
Tong claimed that the only dealings he had with Ma were regarding the failed barracks construction project and that the money he transferred to Ma were loans.
She Ziting and Song Jinhang told the court that they were simple workers who had no idea what business they were involved in. Not only did they not make a penny from the pangolin trade, they also claimed that they were not even paid their salaries for the work in the Congo looking after the stock. The pair asserted that they never shipped or sold any contraband.
The investor Zheng Jilin claimed that he had no idea what the money that he lent to Ma was used for.
Their defences were rejected by the judge. Tiger Ma received a 15-year sentence and a fine of 2 million yuan (300,000 USD). Song Jincong, the largest investor, was sentenced to 11 years and was given a 500,000 yuan (77,000 USD) fine. Tong got 10.5 years and a 500,000 fine. Lu Kun’s sentence was 10 years and ten months and a 100,000 yuan (15,400 USD) fine.
The businessmen's employees who, the court agreed, played subordinate roles, got shorter sentences and smaller fines. Sun Xilu was imprisoned for 6 years and fined 150,000 yuan (23,200 USD), She Ziting - 5.5 years and 100,000 yuan fine, Song Jinhang - 5 years and a 50,000 yuan fine.
Zheng, the investor who borrowed money against his land, received 5 years and a 30,000 yuan fine.
The was no mention in the court records of what happened to the Vietnamese buyers - Fat Brother and the mysterious A Sen, but both are likely to be at large in Vietnam.
Fat Brother seems to have very good contacts – in 2019 he warned his employee Sun that the Vietnamese law enforcement were after him. Sun then immediately fled Vietnam for Guangxi. Then before Sun’s arrest, he was told by Fat Brother that the Chinese Public Security Bureau were looking for him and that there was no point in running.
The fact that the kingpins escaped prosecution is typical and disheartening. Tiger Ma, the fixer, and his accomplices/investors have been convicted but they will quickly be replaced by newcomers attracted by the massive profits that can be made from illegal wildlife trade as controlled by kingpins like Fat Brother and A Sen.
The same pattern is recognisable in Hong Kong, a wildlife trading hub where prosecutions for wildlife smuggling have never gone beyond the mules, and crime continues unabated.
For this reason, Amanda Whitfort, the founder of the SVIS Initiative, has been campaigning for an amendment to Hong Kong’s Organised and Serious Crimes Ordinance which would give Hong Kong’s law enforcement authorities increased investigative powers to bring the kingpins of wildlife crime to justice.
The case of Tiger Ma and Fat Brother provides a timely illustration of the urgent need for these improved legal powers to combat wildlife smuggling.
The SVIS Initiative has prepared Species Victim Impact Statements (SVIS) for all species of pangolin and the three species of elephants. Pangolin is now the most trafficked mammal in the world.
The SVIS provide judges and prosecutors with up to date information about current risks to endangered species and the harm done by removing them from the wild. SVIS are used proactively by Hong Kong’s prosecutors and judiciary to support deterrent sentencing for smugglers caught in Hong Kong.
Legal professionals and NGOs working internationally to combat wildlife crime can request access to the Species Victim Impact Statements from Associate Professor Amanda Whitfort of the University of Hong Kong’s Law Faculty: email@example.com