Pemba, Mozambique (CNN)It’s no secret where the ivory deals take place in Pemba.
Despite a new blanket ban on the ivory trade in China, the closest major city to Mozambique’s largest nature reserve remains a smuggling hotspot for criminal gangs.
In shabby three-star resorts and half-empty Chinese trading offices, illicit deals are discussed freely, especially the illegal trade in ivory.
Posing undercover as ivory middlemen, an investigator is invited into a Chinese investment center near the international airport to talk business. The red-brick, two-story building is like many of its kind, where everything from cheap fashions to toilet seats are on sale.
They meet in an internet café inside the building and within minutes a conversation with a Chinese trader has turned to ivory.
“I have two tusks,” our man tells the trader, flipping through photos of ivory on his smart phone, and promises to have a steady supply ready to export.
“How many meters do you have?” the potential Chinese buyer asked in broken Portuguese, “can you get ten meters?”
The trader questions whether he can get the ivory into China.
“That’s a crime,” he says.
It’s either a negotiating tactic to lower the price or a sign that new laws in China are having an impact.
But will those laws stop the slaughter?
Years of catastrophic illegal poaching have pushed African elephants closer and closer to extinction.
More than 30,000 have been killed annually since at least 2010, according to a consortium of conservation organizations, known as Great Elephant Census.
But 2018 was supposed to be a banner year for elephant conservation.
“The year of the elephant!” one headline gushed. In January, the Chinese government banned all ivory trade.
By criminalizing the purchase of ivory, the ban is meant to stop people from selling and buying ornaments and trinkets made from ivory.
Conservationists heralded the move as the best chance yet to stop the slaughter across Africa and squash demand in the world’s largest market.
Now, six months after the measure took effect, a CNN investigation has found that smugglers are still working with near impunity, and in some cases Chinese investment in Africa is facilitating the trade.
The Niassa Reserve in northern Mozambique, one of the last great wildernesses of southern Africa, is becoming both a test case and emblem of the ban’s failures.
With more than 16,000 square miles of protected reserve bordering Tanzania, it’s about twice the size of South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park. It’s become the epicenter of poaching on the continent.
So far, there has been no statistically significant drop in the levels of poaching since the Chinese ban was implemented, says Richard Thomas of Traffic, a wildlife monitoring group.
“The China ban was widely hailed as a potential game changer,” said Thomas.
“But, there is no evidence that this has been realized at this stage.”
Demand for ivory is largely driven by China, where intricately carved ornaments have long been considered a sign of wealth and ivory products believed to hold medicinal value.
But an investigator who is tracking the Chinese nationals suspected of running ivory smuggling networks out of Pemba, Mozambique, says the ban has done little to halt ivory transactions in Africa.
The investigator can’t be named for his own safety; tracking syndicates can be a dangerous business. He’s worked all across Africa, but he has never seen it this bad.
“This is the worst. This is the worst. This one, is the worst place,” he said, shaking his head slowly.
He gathers actionable intelligence from a group of informers inside the very networks he is trying to bust.
Some traders are doing so well that they are buying up tracts of beachfront property along the azure coastline, he said.
There is some indication the ivory they’re selling doesn’t just go to mainland China, but to other places in Southeast Asia to be sold to Chinese nationals, tourists and others trying to evade the Chinese ban, says Thomas.