Fishy cargo turns out to be smuggled ivory

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 September, 2010, 12:00am

Suspicions over a consignment of pungent dried anchovies led customs officers to sniff out a much larger haul - the year's biggest seizure of illegal ivory in the city.

The HK$10.8 million consignment of tusks smuggled from Africa was found concealed among cases of anchovies in two containers that arrived in Hong Kong on Sunday.

Albert Chan Chi-hung, head of customs' ports and maritime command, said it was the first time anchovies had been found disguising contraband. 'Smugglers might think customs officers would avoid searching dried anchovies because of their unpleasant smell,' Chan said. 'But they don't know that we are responsible officers.'

The third such seizure this year, the ivory is believed to have been destined for the mainland.

The shipping documents indicated the anchovies were from Malaysia but investigation showed the containers had come from Tanzania.

'Our suspicions were raised because it was rare for dried anchovies to be shipped to Hong Kong from Africa. There's no point in shipping dried anchovies all the way from there to Hong Kong,' Chan said. The shipping charge would be more than the value of the dried fish.

The two containers were opened for inspection at the Customs and Excise Department's Tsing Yi plant on Thursday when two men aged 46 and 48 came to pick up the consignment.

The men, one of them a businessman, were arrested after officers found 87 packages containing tusks among the 277 packages in the containers. The haul contained 384 tusks of different sizes and weighed more than 1.5 tonnes.

Officers said the consignment was worth about HK$10.85 million and was the biggest seizure of its kind this year. Investigations showed Hong Kong was not its final destination.

After being questioned overnight, the two suspects were released on bail yesterday.

Customs officers confiscated a tonne of ivory tusks worth HK$2 million on January 7 and seized another 5.8kg of ivory products worth HK$11,760 on February 8.

Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department figures show 755kg of ivory was seized in 2009 and 2.6 tonnes in 2008. A haul of 3.9 tonnes in 2006 was the biggest since a global ban on the trade was introduced in 1989.

Chan said there was no evidence Hong Kong was used as a transport centre for ivory smuggling, but customs officers had stepped up inspections of imported cargos, especially those from Africa, to crack down on the illegal trade. He said ivory was usually smuggled into the mainland and other countries in Asia, such as Japan and Vietnam.

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said there was no indication that there was a large demand for ivory in the city. It said ivory was used in sculptures.

An endangered species protection officer with the department, Alfred Wong Kwong-chiu, said the seized ivory would be donated to local and overseas governments and non-governmental organisations for education, scientific research and enforcement identification.

Anyone found importing, exporting or in possession of a protected species for commercial purposes faces a maximum penalty of a HK$5 million fine and two years' jail.

Under the Import and Export Ordinance, any person found importing undeclared cargo is liable to a HK$2 million fine and seven years' imprisonment.

Declining population

In the past 40 years, the number of elephants in Africa has dropped by: 600,000

Extinction clock

Activists say Africa's elephants could be almost extinct by: 2020

Annual toll

Number of elephants killed each year because of the ivory trade: 60,000