How many slaughtered African elephants does 1.3 tonnes of ivory tusks represent? It is hard to tell when they are cut into 779 pieces and hidden amid other container cargo. This is the latest ruse employed by smugglers to try to fool Hong Kong customs inspectors on the lookout for an illegal and lethal trade. More than 100 would seem a conservative estimate. It may be debatable whether the elephant or the lion is king of the African plains. But there is no question that this socially organised giant of its own domain needs protecting from human predators driven by greed.
The traditional demand for ivory in Asia, boosted by the nouveau riche on the mainland, is fuelling wholesale elephant slaughter in defiance of a ban on most trade in new ivory. The demand has involved Hong Kong as a convenient transit hub, as it has beem for drug trafficking. The estimated HK$10.6 million haul of tusks from Kenya just seized by customs officers was the third in three months, following a similar shipment in November from Tanzania and a 3.8 tonne haul worth HK$27 million in two shipments from Kenya and Tanzania in October. This time the tusks were concealed in a shipment of architectural stones of similar shape. Officials deny that Hong Kong is becoming a regional hub for the illegal trade because there has been no increase in seizures in recent years. But the trade is continuing, smugglers are getting cleverer at escaping detection, and we only know of intercepted shipments.
There may be a case for controlled culling of elephant populations to maintain a balance of wildlife habitat, but that is best left to conservation authorities, not bounty hunters and their criminal clients.
However repugnant, the ivory trade is not to be compared with smuggling hard drugs. But the latest seizure is a reminder that Hong Kong's location as a transport and financial hub makes it attractive for all kinds of illegal cross-border activities and money laundering. Ultimately, co-operation with law enforcement elsewhere, including intelligence sharing, is the most effective way to combat the ivory trade, as it is with drug trafficking. Public education could help rein in demand. How many admirers of carved ivory would be comfortable with the image of hundreds of elephants killed for that and nothing else? A 2007 study by the International Fund for Animal Welfare found that 70 per cent of Chinese did not know that an elephant had to be killed to have its tusks taken.