Giant clam shells, ivory, and organised crime: Analysis of a potential new nexus

Giant clam shell seizures in the Philippines have risen sharply in both frequency and volume over the past three years. The scale of these seizures points towards the involvement of organised crime. Today, the Wildlife Justice Commission has published a new report that examines the evolution of this illegal trade: Giant clam shells, ivory, and organised crime: Analysis of a potential new nexus.

Giant clams are a traditional source of subsistence protein for coastal communities across Asia and Pacific regions. In recent decades, however, giant clams have been subject to poaching and commercial harvesting. Now viewed as high-value luxury food item, giant clams are also in demand in the international aquarium trade, and their shells are sought after for the ornamental carving industry.

The Wildlife Justice Commission is concerned that giant clam shells are being used as a substitute for elephant ivory. Since China’s 2017 ban on the domestic elephant ivory trade, giant clam shells are an increasingly popular ivory alternative. These factors are likely to have contributed to the overexploitation and rapid decline of giant clam populations throughout many of their natural habitats.

This not only puts increased pressure on the vulnerable giant clam, but also perpetuates demand for “premium” ivory products, sustaining the threat to elephant populations in the wild.

Giant clams may not be as immediately charismatic as, say, elephants or rhinos, but they play a valuable role in maintaining healthy coral and oceans. Preventing biodiversity loss and preserving ocean eco-systems are crucial in the fight against catastrophic climate change.

Giant clam shell seizures in the Philippines

In 2021, the Wildlife Justice Commission identified a series of large seizures of giant clam shells in the Philippines. Since 2019, there have been 13 seizures of giant clams, with a combined weight of 120,639 tonnes and a total estimated value of more than USD 85 million. The scale of these seizures indicates the possible involvement of organised crime; collecting and transporting such vast quantities of product would require significant organisation, logistics, and finances. There have been very few seizures of giant clams outside of the Philippines, suggesting smuggling is largely conducted with impunity.

Suspected export destinations and convergence with ivory trafficking

China is the primary suspected destination of the giant clam shell shipments, while Japan could be a potential secondary location of concern. However, direct links have yet to be identified between the Philippine seizures and either of these countries. This report serves to raise awareness of this emerging threat and its association to trade in other countries needs to be explored further.

Raw giant clam shells are believed to enter China predominantly through Hainan province, the epicentre of the shell carving industry. In May 2021, 1,300 kg of raw shells were seized at a processing factory in the region, alongside elephant ivory and other ivory-like materials. This example of convergence with the underground ivory trade is particularly concerning, given the unconfirmed destinations of the clam shells seized in the Philippines. The trade of ivory substitutes both sustains market demand for ivory, threatening elephants in the long term, and puts other vulnerable species under increased pressure.

Key intelligence gaps

This new report highlights key intelligence gaps that could yield valuable information on criminal dynamics in the giant clam shell trade:

  • The movement of the raw contraband along the smuggling chain remains almost completely undetected.
  • Despite suggestions that China and Japan are the potential destinations for the shell stockpiles, no smuggling routes to either country have been identified.
  • Many questions remain unanswered about the modus operandi of criminals exploiting giant clams, including their current consolidation and processing locations.
  • There is almost no information on the criminal drivers and enabling factors behind the stockpiling phenomenon.
  • The extent and nature of the role of corruption in the illegal harvest and trade of giant clams is unknown.
  • The true extent and value of the illegal retail market for giant clam shell products in China (and legal market in Japan) is currently unknown.

We urge the Chinese, Japanese and Philippine authorities to take the findings of this report into consideration and, given the use of giant clam shells as an alternative to elephant ivory, to be wary of potential associations with transnational organised crime. Intelligence-led investigations are a valuable tool to learn more about the supply chains, smuggling dynamics, and criminal networks driving illegal trade.

The Wildlife Justice Commission will continue to gather intelligence and conduct its own analysis and investigations to assess further developments in this criminality.

Read here: Giant clam shells, ivory, and organised crime: Analysis of a potential new nexus