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

For millennia, giant clams have provided a source of subsistence meat for coastal communities across the Asia and Pacific regions. However, during the past 50 years, the sharp growth in commercial harvesting and illegal poaching of clams as a high-value luxury food, live clams for the international aquarium trade, and shells for the ornamental carving industry has driven the overexploitation and rapid decline of giant clam populations throughout much of their range.

In response to the surge in international commercial trade, all giant clam species are listed in Appendix II under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and are protected by national legislation in most range countries. The world’s largest giant clam species T. gigas is the most threatened, with about half of its wild populations either severely decimated or locally extinct at some sites.

Map identifying locations of giant clam shell seizures in the Philippines between January 2016 and July 2021.

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.

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.

Wildlife Justice Commission

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.