Customs seize $5m ivory shipment
By JUSTINE FERRARI
CUSTOMS officers believe a seized consignment of $5 million worth of carved ivory goods unveiled yesterday, originated from the stockpile of unworked ivory in Hongkong caused by the international ban on the ivory trade in 1990.
Officers from the airport command of the Customs and Excise Department said yesterday they intercepted the 250-kilogram shipment, marked as ''art craft'', last Thursday at the air cargo terminal on its way to Osaka, Japan.
It is the largest shipment of worked ivory products discovered since the ban on its import and export was implemented in July 1990.
Announcing the seizure yesterday, the head of the airport command of the Customs and Excise Department, Mr Raymond Li Wai-man, said customs investigators were now searching for a Japanese man in connection with the shipment and did not believe a syndicate was involved.
Mr Li said Japan had been the largest importer of ivory before the international ban and remained an attractive market for Hongkong ivory manufacturers, many of whom were forced to close their businesses in the wake of the ban, while retaining stocks they could not sell.
''I can't rule out the possibility that more shipments slip through customs,'' he said. ''Since the ban, the trade has become inactive, but because there were still about 460 tonnes of raw ivory [in the Hongkong stockpile], the traders may want to dispose of it so they have got to manufacture it for sale.'' The 103-member Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species placed a ban on all trade in elephant products in January 1990 to save the endangered African elephant from extinction. Hongkong stopped trading last July.
Mr Li said unworked ivory could fetch about $2,000 a kg and finished products could sell for as high as $20,000 a kg with Japanese buyers prepared to pay double.
The goods seized last week comprised mainly figurines, as well as model temples, ships, carved tusks and beads.
The World Wide Fund for Nature-Hongkong yesterday said the seizure confirmed fears that the territory's stockpile was slowly trickling overseas.
Senior conservation officer Ms Amy Lau Fuk-man said many ivory merchants had closed down since being required to register their ivory stocks three years ago. In many cases, they had moved away from their recorded addresses with the result that supplies were slowly disappearing.
''The legal market is very small, so the incentive to smuggle this ivory is really very high. This seizure highlights the importance for the Agriculture and Fisheries Department to seriously check out where the ivory has gone,'' she said.
A spokeswoman for the department agreed the stockpile was declining, but because the trading of ivory products within Hongkong was permitted, there was no means of distinguishing between legitimate and illegal sales.
Ms Lau also said the penalties for illegally trading or owning ivory should be increased. It stands at $25,000 for the first offence and $50,000 for subsequent offences with imprisonment for six months.