Hong Kong is on the frontline in the fight against illegal ivory trafficking, and has a growing role as a transit point of the illicit trade, according to reports by the UN and a wildlife agency.
Large-scale seizures in the city in recent years point to the involvement of organised crime, one of the reports says.
Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Hong Kong accounted for, or was implicated in, 60 per cent, or 21 out of 34 large-scale seizures since 2009 totalling 41.1 tonnes, according to a report on ivory trade submitted to CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
In 2011, seizures in Hong Kong represented about 8 per cent of the world's reported hauls by weight, according to figures from the Customs and Excise Department and from the report by Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network.
"These four countries and territories currently constitute the frontline defence for preventing large-scale movements of ivory into the two key end-use markets," the report said.
"Typically, these transit points are used to change the identity of containers originating in Africa so that their onward shipment to China or Thailand does not attract … attention."
To combat the smuggling, it called for better intelligence to allow more effective enforcement at major seaports including Hong Kong, which handles millions of cargo containers a year.
The city was identified as a thriving market before the worldwide ban on the ivory trade took effect in 1990.
It is still labelled as a "transit gateway" to the ivory markets in a report titled Elephants in the Dust by the UN, Traffic and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
From the amount of ivory seizures, "Hong Kong features both as a transit point for ivory either entering Asia directly from Africa or from other points in Asia," Dr Richard Thomas, a spokesman for Traffic, said.
The amount of the seizures was "also indicative of organised crime", he said.
Reported hauls in Hong Kong in 2011 were about three tonnes. The figures for last year, including big seizures originating from Kenya and Tanzania and amounting to more than five tonnes, have yet to be submitted to CITES.
The report also drew attention to Hong Kong's efforts in the face of a surge in ivory products seized from people crossing the border to the mainland. Globally, while the number of ivory seizures made in 2011 fell from the peak in 2009, the total weight was at a historic high, at nearly 38 tonnes.
It estimated that there was an increasing number of large seizures of 800kg or more in the three years to 2011 - eight in 2009, nine in 2010, and 17 in 2011.
These large-scale seizures amounted to 61 tonnes. The report attributed the increasing pattern of large movements of ivory to the involvement of international criminal syndicates.
The report said China's involvement in the illicit trade was 46 times greater in 2011 than it was in 2006, probably due to its growing affluence and demand for the product.
In 2011, China made about 2,000 seizures, with 28 tonnes of ivory forfeited, according to the report. "Demand for ivory in China lay dormant for much of the 20th century, but has in recent years made a remarkable resurgence, to the extent that China is now the world's largest … market for illegal ivory," the report said.
It also noted that new smuggling routes are being developed through Laos and Cambodia into China.
More than 25,000 elephants are killed each year in Africa, according to Traffic.
The population of African elephants stands at no more than 650,000 , but the number could decline rapidly because of a new wave of poaching, the wildlife agency says.
Before the ivory trade ban, the elephant population had been estimated at 1.3 million.
Earlier this month, Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra pledged at the opening conference of CITES that she would introduce laws to regulate ivory trade in the country.
A transnational ban on the ivory trade was imposed in 1989 to protect the African elephant when its species protection status was upgraded from Appendix II to Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
The upgrade meant a blanket ban on the trade, which had major markets in Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan at that time. Since the ban, ivory craft production has almost disappeared completely.
Then in 1997, CITES allowed the sale of government-held stocks from Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe under tight controls. That led Japan to import 4.9 tonnes of ivory, costing US$5 million, in 1999.
The rules were relaxed further in 2002, prompting the sale of 107 tonnes of raw ivory to China and Japan in 2008 at US$15.5 million. Over the years, some African nations have sought to downgrade the status of their elephant populations in vain.
This week, Bangkok hosted CITES parties in a conference that discussed the development of a decision-making mechanism for a process of future ivory trade.
In the meantime, illicit trading in elephants tusks continue. Hong Kong is no stranger to ivory smuggling:
January 4, 2013 Officers find 1.3 tonnes of ivory, estimated to be worth HK$10.6 million, hidden in a shipment labelled architectural stones in a container, which came from Kenya via Malaysia. The tusks had been cut into pieces - despite whole tusks being more valuable - in order to pass off as rocks.
November 16, 2012 A 1.3-tonne haul of ivory, which cost the lives of 150 elephants and is worth an estimated HK$10.65 million, is found in the middle of a container of sunflower seeds shipped from Tanzania. Some of the 569 pieces of ivory were complete tusks and some were broken. The tusks were believed to be meant for the mainland.
October 20, 2012 An unprecedented haul of tusks weighing 3.8 tonnes that cost the lives of 600 elephants is seized in Hong Kong. The haul comprised 1,209 elephant tusks, either whole or in pieces, and could have fetched upwards of HK$26.7 million. It arrived in two shipping containers from Kenya and Tanzania.
November 15, 2011 Customs officers uncover 758 ivory chopsticks, weighing 13kg, and 127 ivory bracelets, weighing 9.2kg, inside a container shipped to Hong Kong. The HK$17.4 million cargo was disguised as 63 packages of scrap plastics from a vessel arriving from South Africa.
August 20, 2011 Customs seize 1.89 tonnes of African ivory tusks, totalling 794 pieces, inside a container shipped to Hong Kong via Malaysia. They were worth about HK$13 million.
September 10, 2010 A total of 384 ivory tusks weighing 1.55 tonnes in two containers is seized in Hong Kong. The tusks were worth about HK$10.85 million. The consignment, declared as 277 packages of "dried anchovies", came from Tanzania.