In one of the biggest busts of its kind in Hong Kong, customs authorities last Tuesday seized more than 1,100 ivory tusks, 13 rhino horns and five leopard pelts. The haul, found in a container shipped from Nigeria, is valued at more than $5.3 million (about N848 million).
Hong Kong customs officials — tipped off by their mainland Chinese counterparts — detained “two suspicious containers” for inspection, according to a Hong Kong government press release. Authorities found the animal products “inside 21 sealed wooden crates at the rear of one of the containers.”
Authorities have not made any arrests in this case so far.
Following this week’s discovery, Hong Kong customs have now confiscated some eight tons of elephant ivory — in at least four separate hauls — within the past year. With a black market price of almost $3,000 a kilogram, its total worth could easily surpass the $20 million mark.
Customs officials in July opened a container originating from Togo to find 1,148 tusks valued at $2.2 million.
On April 30, airport customs officers zeroed in on a package labelled as “spare parts” originating from Burundi, transiting through Hong Kong and with Singapore as its final destination. Authorities discovered 113 ivory tusks valued at nearly $400,000.
In November 2012, Hong Kong authorities seized $1.4 million worth of smuggled ivory in a container from Tanzania. The 569 tusks were found buried under hundreds of bags of sunflower seeds.
And in a bust just one month earlier, customs officers detained two containers from Tanzania and Kenya that claimed to be ferrying scrap plastic. More than four tons of ivory — some 1,200 ivory tusks — were found. The haul, valued at $3.4 million, made for one of the biggest seizures of ivory tusk in the history of the Chinese territory.
Conservationists estimate that 25,000 elephants were killed for their ivory in 2011. Poaching levels have not been that high for more than 10 years. In many parts of the continent, murder rates now exceed population growth, putting elephants at risk of extinction.
China is the world’s number one market for ivory products, according to animal welfare groups. Hong Kong, the world’s third largest port, serves as an easy entry point into and out of mainland China.
As China’s citizens have grown in wealth, their demand for ivory — often referred to as “white gold” in the country — has also rocketed.
Since 2009, the number of large-scale seizures of ivory headed for Asia — categorized as more than 800 kilograms per shipment — has more than doubled according to a March 2013 report by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The number of incidents hit a record in 2011.
Demand for rhino horn is driven by the belief in Asia that the ground-up horn cures diseases, which is not supported by medical evidence. Rhino horn is made of keratin, a tough protein found in human fingernails.
No one has been arrested.
Under Hong Kong law, anyone found guilty of trading in products from endangered species faces up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $645,000.
Export of wildlife and their products from Nigeria is also illegal.
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