Traffickers are using new methods to smuggle illegal ivory tusks into the city, a senior customs official said yesterday as he announced the third seizure of tusks in three months.
The 769kg haul of 189 pieces was hidden in three 20-foot containers labelled as soya beans that came from Ivory Coast, West Africa, via Malaysia on September 14 and 19. The banned tusks would have fetched HK$11.5 million on Asia's black market.
The Customs and Excise Department ports and maritime command head Vincent Wong Sui-hang said the containers were picked out for X-ray inspection because soya imports from the country were rare and hence raised officers' suspicions.
The haul was discovered after the officers opened the containers. Upon inspection, the tusks - some whole and some in pieces - were found wrapped in linen and nylon bags in the innermost part of the containers, hidden under bags of soya beans.
Officers believe an international smuggling ring is behind the three shipments because the shipper was the same.
"Instead of one shipment, the smugglers broke the consignment into three shipments and used different vessels and different consignees in an effort to evade customs detection," Wong said, adding that it was the first time in recent years that banned tusks were found being smuggled into the city from Ivory Coast.
He believes the consignment was destined for an Asian country. No one has yet been arrested in the operation.
Some of the tusks found in the haul measured more than two metres in length.
They were believed to have been removed from slaughtered bush African elephants, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said.
The department's endangered species protection officer Azaria Wong Kam-yan said the haul of tusks probably cost the lives of tens of mature, young African elephants.
Although this seizure was the city's third in three months, customs officials denied that Hong Kong had become a regional hub for the illegal trade.
The authorities intercepted two shipments of ivory totalling 4.4 tonnes in July and August. Officers also seized 1.3 tonnes of smuggled tusks in January.
"We don't have intelligence or concrete information showing that there is an increasing trend of ivory smuggling," Wong said.
The senior superintendent said the customs department was determined to and capable of smashing the smuggling activities in the city,
Last year, customs officials intercepted three shipments with a total seizure of 5.1 tonnes of illegal ivory tusks.