The demand for saiga horn in traditional medicine has been driving the surge in saiga poaching in Kazakhstan where most of world’s saiga are found. The Species Victim Impact Statements (SVIS) Initiative has already published information reporting the murders of Kazakh wildlife rangers by saiga poachers.
Despite the 2019 CITES imposed zero-export quota on wild saiga, CITES records show that in the past 2 years large quantities of saiga horn were imported to Singapore and Hong Kong SAR. Saiga horn is readily available in the traditional medicine shops in both Singapore and Hong Kong.
Saiga horn on sale in a Chinese medicine shop in Hong Kong (Credit: Sam Inglis).
In Mainland China, saiga horn medicine is not openly sold. Saiga is now extinct in China, but it is classified as a grade I nationally-protected species in the country. Sentences passed for smuggling, selling and possession of such species, their parts and products made from them, are severe - up to 15 years imprisonment. Such sentences are regularly passed in Chinese courts.
However, the profits that can be made in saiga horn are such that smugglers are willing to risk a decade behind bars. In Kazakhstan, a fresh horn can be bought for less than 180 US dollars. In China, a single saiga horn is valued at 20,000 yuan (USD 3,100) by Chinese courts, although in some cases the seized horn were valued at 80,000 - 200,000 yuan (USD 12,000 - 31,000) each.
Between 2014 and 2021, 56 cases involving saiga horn went to court in Mainland China. The charges were either smuggling of valuable species, or possession and selling of valuable species and products made from them.
The number of cases peaked in 2020, with 23 cases heard, up from 10 cases in 2019 and 8 in 2018. Most of the cases were heard in Beijing and Anhui Province - 8 cases in each location. In Anhui, however, the cases were for selling and possession, rather than smuggling.
The contraband is brought into China not only directly from countries where wild saiga live - Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia, but also from Vietnam.
Saiga horn smuggling routes into China.
The smuggling route from Vietnam into Guangxi Autonomous Region of China is a major conduit of wildlife contraband, including African pangolin species and elephant ivory, as well as swim bladders from totoaba fish that originate in Mexico.
Such contraband is brought into Vietnam by sea and then smuggled into China across the long, porous border. It appears that saiga has joined African species on this route, but it is unclear how it arrives into Vietnam.
In September 2021, the border police in Fangchenggang Municipality that borders Vietnam and is notorious for smuggling, arrested 2 men for smuggling into China 146 saiga horn and 6 bracelets made from horn of white rhino.
The video of the arrest released by the police shows an SUV vehicle and plastic bags containing the contraband, the total value of which was said to be 29,600,000 yuan - 4.6 million US dollars.
The Covid-19 pandemic effectively stopped all air travel from Russia to China in 2020, but in 2018 and 2019, the Fourth Intermediate People’s Court in Beijing handled half a dozen near-identical cases of Chinese citizens returning from Moscow to Beijing Capital Airport with saiga horn in their luggage.
In 2019, a gang of 5 was sentenced. The leader had sent two couriers to Moscow to pick up 303 saiga horns - the court then valued them at 60,060,000 yuan – 9.4 million US dollars. On arrival at Beijing Capital Airport from Moscow via Helsinki, the couriers collected their check-in luggage containing the horn, and before going through customs, passed the suitcases to an accomplice who had accessed the restricted area using an access card he obtained from a bribed airport worker.
The head of the gang was sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 130,000 yuan (USD 20,400). The couriers to 12 years 6 months’ imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 yuan (USD 16,000) and 8 years and a fine of 80,000 yuan (USD 12,500). The person who snuck into the restricted area in the airport to receive the contraband was sentenced to 7 years and a fine of 70,000 yuan (USD 11,000). The airport worker who provided the card to a 3-year suspended sentence and a fine of 30,000 yuan (USD 4,700).
Russia has a population of only approximately wild 5,000 saiga, but the country shares a long and porous border with Kazakhstan and smuggling of Kazakh saiga horn into Russia for re-export is known to occur.
Xinjiang Autonomous Region
Xinjiang borders Kazakhstan, where most of the world’s saiga are found, and also Mongolia and Russia, home to much smaller populations.
The largest ever seizure of saiga horn in China was made in June this year in Xinjiang’s Yili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture which borders Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia. 2530 horns, hidden in a locomotive of a freight train coming from Kazakhstan were seized. The value of the shipment was over 200 million yuan – 31.4 million US dollars. Yili authorities had also intercepted shipments of 880 and 380 horns in March 2021.
Cases of smuggling have also been documented, and Mongolian smugglers convicted, in Xinjiang’s Qinghe County that connects Mongolia and China.
Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region
The city of Manzhouli in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region is located directly on the Sino-Russian border and is one of the main ports of entry between Russia and China. In recent years, according to the Chinese press, the city has also become a major point of entry of wildlife products, including saiga horn.
In November 2020, in the city of Ussuriysk in Russian Far East, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) discovered a storage facility with 451kg of saiga horn and 450kg of dried sea cucumbers that was being prepared to be shipped to China. Ussuriysk is located very close to the border with China’s Heilongjiang province and the border city of Suifenhe – a major port of entry and a trade center between Russia and China.
Another such port of entry into China’s Heilongjiang Province from the Russian Far East is the city of Heihe that lies across the Amur River from Russia’s Blagoveschensk. This route is also now used by saiga smugglers.
In 2018, Russian customs in Blagoveschensk arrested a Chinese citizen who was crossing the border. He was hiding under his clothes 25kg of saiga horn.
In 2019, one Dmitry Gorbachev was stopped by Heihe customs. The officers saw that Gorbachev was moving strangely and his clothes looked unusually bulky. A search showed that he had taped 27 saiga horns, valued at 540,000 yuan (USD 85,000), to his body. Gorbachev told the court that he made money by ferrying contraband back and forth across the border for an unidentified Chinese citizen, and the contraband was usually everyday items bought on Taobao. For the smuggling of saiga horn Gorbachev was paid 6,750 rubles - less than 90 US dollars.
The court sentenced Gorbachev to 5 years’ imprisonment, followed by deportation.