PICTURED: A huge seizure of giant clam shells worth $25 million is unearthed on a beach in the western Philippines. PC: Philippines Coast Guard. Released.
Story at a glance…
Giant clams have been decimated as poachers harvest their shells for illegal trafficking.
The shells are carved like ivory, and are providing a separate raw material for the Chinese ornamental carving industry.
A new report suggests the decline in elephant ivory trade is partly responsible for the uptick in shell trade.
Populations of giant clams have fallen by half or more across all sections of their range in the Indo-Pacific. The mollusks that can weigh 500 pounds were once a source of subsistence meat for coastal communities, but are now being harvested illegally at alarming rates for the decorative properties of their shells.
Under the sculptor’s knife, the shell carves like elephant ivory, and for many years while the latter was banned and heavily policed in China, the former began to take its place.
Philippine police since 2019 have confiscated 19 separate hauls of giant clam shells that together are worth $85 million on the black market, and weigh 120,600 metric tons. 104 square miles of Philippine reef habitat may have been destroyed entirely by boats seeking what has essentially become a living treasure chest.
In China giant clam shell shipments are also beginning to be seized in small numbers by police, often accompanied by other replacements for the coveted elephant ivory, such as mammoth and narwhal ivory, and even helmeted hornbill crests.
A report on this staggering growth in the trade of giant clams was assembled by the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC), which made recommendations about how to combat the growing problem. Huge gaps of knowledge, the WJC, report, exist regarding the giant clam trade, including whether transnational organized crime is behind the massive stockpiles discovered mostly in Palawan, the coastal region of the Philippines that borders the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea.
Living treasure chests
There are 12 species of giant clams, with highest numbers of both species and individuals found in the Coral Triangle marine area, which includes a variety of small and large island nations including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, and the Solomon Islands.
They are the world’s largest mollusk, and can grow to be a meter and a half in length, but unlike other genera, they cannot reproduce without other individuals nearby. To remove so many giant clams from an area is to remove them permanently.
All 12 species are now protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Known as “white gold of the sea,” “king of all shells,” and “jade of the sea” the shells were prized by Buddhists before the turn of the millennium for their auspicious properties when carved into prayer beads. Their translucent shells appear like elephant ivory when carved.
Mongabay reports that the Palawan Sustainable Development Agency suspects the rigors of the pandemic played a role in the recent uptick in seizures, as men go into rural fishing villagers offering the fishing equivalent of a “get-rich-quick” scheme, by offering a high price for clams which the fishermen might know where to find.
Palawan is the only place where scientists have observed the largest species T. gigas, in the wild, but often their shells are collected from ones cast aside after the harvesting of their meat. It’s thought long time local fishermen know where to find these deposits.
While little evidence has been found linking seizures in the Philippines to buyers on mainland China, evidence has arisen that among the 46 recorded seizures of giant clam shells and carved shell products, 22 included other ivory sources, from elephants, narwhal, and others, as well as marine products such as dried seahorses, hawksbill turtle shell products, and corals.
In 2016 following a strict ban on elephant ivory, the Chinese government, which had ten years before listed the engraving of ivory as an activity of “intangible national heritage,” encouraged ivory masters to seek additional resources to practice their skills, such as bones.
This drew instant interest in the “sea jade” and WJC reports that the 1,300 kilograms of raw shells which were confiscated by police in a processing factory in Qionghai City, Hainan province, alongside eight cases where elephant ivory and giant clam shells were seized together, suggest carvers are turning towards other ivory substitutes.
This has even led traffickers up into the frozen wastes of Siberia to dig of mammoth remains seeking to provide another less-policed source of ivory for the carving trade.
Giant clams are master reef builders, and their ecological value is immense within their natural habitat. With the strength of local fish stocks dependent on thriving reef ecosystems, opportunities for police and locals to work together to stop the poaching of the “white gold of the sea” are good ones.