150 elephants died for ivory load seized at port in Hong Kong

Customs' third big seizure in a year underlines a disturbing trend of growth in Asian demand

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 November, 2012, 4:23am

Customs officers have made the third large seizure of ivory in a year as poachers in Africa slaughter thousands of animals to feed demand in China and other Asian countries.

The 1,330kg haul, worth an estimated HK$10.65 million, was found on Thursday in the middle of a container of sunflower seeds shipped from Tanzania.

It followed a record 3,800kg haul of ivory, valued at more than HK$27 million, found last month in two shipments, one from Kenya and one from Tanzania.

The 569 pieces of ivory found on Thursday - some complete tusks, some broken - were displayed on the floor of customs' Tsing Yi station yesterday.

They included small, juvenile tusks as well as one over a metre long and 25cm thick, clearly from an older animal.

"We'd have to try and put all the pieces together, but I'd say around 150 elephants died for this shipment," said Alfred Wong Kwong-Chiu, an Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department endangered species protection officer.

Customs officers said poachers were growing bolder, hoping such a cargo would slip through the net in a port like Hong Kong, which handles tens of thousands of containers a day.

"The end market is largely mainland China," said Chris Shepherd, deputy director of Traffic in Southeast Asia, an NGO that works to stop the trade in endangered species.

"It's purely for luxury goods - carvings, name stamps, chopsticks. People have more disposable income in China now."

No one has been arrested over the latest seizure, but seven men - including one from Hong Kong - are being held on the mainland over last month's find.

The latest shipment is not thought to be related to the earlier haul, but a full investigation would be required to rule out any connection, Hong Kong customs' head of ports and maritime command, Lam Tak-fai, said.

A June report by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora said that most ivory left Indian Ocean seaports in East Africa, primarily Kenya and Tanzania.

Lam said the container in the latest seizure, registered to Tanzania-based Community Freighters, followed a similar route from Tanzania, changing ships in Dubai before reaching Hong Kong.

He said prosecutions could take a long time because the culprits in the originating countries would have to be extradited to Hong Kong for trial.

The maximum penalty for violating import-export law is HK$2 million and seven years in prison, while that for dealing in endangered species is HK$5 million and two years in prison.

A combined violation could lead to nine years in jail, but no one had yet received the maximum, Lam said.