Ivory bust reveals traffickers' new evasion tactics

Interception of tusks from West Africa shows how far traffickers will go for sales on mainland

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 August, 2013, 7:16pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 8:38pm

Ivory traffickers have switched smuggling routes in an effort to sneak elephant tusks into Hong Kong undetected, a senior customs official said after 1,148 tusks worth HK$17.5 million were found hidden in a shipping container on Thursday.

They arrived from the West African state of Togo via Morocco - a journey up to half as long again as the traditional routes out of East Africa from countries such as Kenya or Tanzania, said Senior Superintendent Lam Tak-fai, head of customs' ports and maritime command.

Once in Hong Kong, smuggled tusks go to the mainland, where ivory is known as "white gold" and is a symbol of wealth and status.

Thursday's massive haul - nearly 2.2 tonnes - was believed to have been destined for Shandong province. "It is the first time in recent years that we have seized tusks arriving from West Africa," Lam said, adding that officers would now step up inspections of imports from the region.

Customs already intercepted two shipments of ivory this year, totalling 1.3 tonnes.

In the latest case, shipping documents said the container, which arrived late last month, was filled with wooden planks.

The consignment drew attention from law enforcement officers as a local logistics firm suspected of involvement in another smuggling case was responsible for the shipment.

An X-ray examination aroused further suspicion, and when no one came to pick up the consignment, it was opened for inspection at the Customs and Excise Department's Kwai Chung facility. Thirty nylon bags of tusks were found hidden behind piles of planks.

The address for the logistics firm turned out to be false and so far no one has been arrested.

According to the department's figures, two cases of ivory smuggling were foiled last year, with 5.1 tonnes of ivory seized. There were three cases in 2011, with 3.1 tonnes seized, and two cases in 2010 with 2.5 tonnes.

Lam said: "The figures have fluctuated over the years, but there is no indication that the problem is getting worse."

Anyone found importing, exporting or in possession of a protected species or its products faces a maximum penalty of HK$5 million and two years' jail. The maximum penalty for violating import-export laws is a HK$2 million fine and seven years' jail.