WINDHOEK - The single greatest obstacle that law enforcement officials have in combatting wildlife crime and related smuggling is the lack of a money trail that can be used as evidence in court to secure convictions against the key organisers of such transactions.

This project exposes the key, enabling financial mechanism deployed by the local poaching and Chinese smuggling syndicates known as "Chinese Flying Money" or "Fei Qian", an ancient trade-based settlement system that operates outside of the overview of the international regulatory oversight of the formal banking system. 

The investigation followed the trail of abalone smuggled via Namibia from the Western Cape in South Africa to Hong Kong and the New Territories, illegally harvested rosewood from Angola, Zambia and the DRC sent to China and Vietnam, as well as examining the drugs-for-abalone trade in the Western and a tax fraud case in Namibia to illustrate how the Fei Qian mechanism works.

The investigation drew on sources in Spain, Hong Kong, Namibia and South Africa, ongoing and old court cases, property, company and other public records and interviews with former and current law enforcement officials to set out the politically enabling mechanism and the means by which billions of dollars are illegally but invisibly exported from Africa to China.

This chart is to help you understand the story better.
A chart detailing how the “Chinese Flying Money” or fei qian (Mandarin) works.


Two previous members of the team from Spain and Hong Kong withdrew from the investigation due to changes in personal circumstances.

John Grobler

John Grobler is a veteran investigative reporter based in Windhoek, Namibia, from where he has written for South Africa’s Mail & Guardian as well as The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique, and others.

Alex Hafford

Alex Hofford is a photographer for the renowned TRAFFIC NGO in Hong Kong that monitors international trade in wildlife contraband.


Where the Cape abalone ends up: shucked abalone shells on top of a non-descript building in New Territories, Hong Kong, where almost all abalone smuggled from Africa ends up as part of the fei qian chain before being smuggled into Mainland China.
A grant of €7.333 was allotted on 15 November 2018.