Immense Cache of Smuggled Ivory Is Seized in Malaysia
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN, New York Times
December 11, 2012
NAIROBI, Kenya — Malaysian authorities said Tuesday that they had uncovered more than 1,000 smuggled elephant tusks hidden in secret compartments in two shipments of mahogany, a staggeringly large seizure that several conservationists said was the biggest in history.
“It’s extremely depressing,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, one of the world’s most renowned elephant researchers, who has been studying the ivory trade for more than 30 years. “The price of ivory is making this situation insane.”
Fueled by growing demand from Asia, especially from China, the price of ivory has shot up to more than $1,000 per pound in some markets. As a result, tens of thousands of elephants are being slaughtered each year in Africa — more than at any time in the past two decades — and some scientists say the survival of the species may be endangered. Much of the ivory is used for chopsticks, bookmarks, figurines and other trinkets.
Malaysia is a well-known transit point. Malaysian authorities said Tuesday that they had discovered the ivory, which they said totaled 24 tons, packed in two shipping containers, concealed in stacks of neatly sawed wood.
“Inside the wood there were secret compartments that were filled with elephant tusks,” said a customs director, Azis Yaacub, according to Agence France-Presse.
Photographs from the seizure showed that the compartments were built to look like stacks of mahogany, but were in fact three feet deep and crammed with ivory. The shipment was labeled floor tiles.
According to Malaysian authorities, the shipment took a circuitous route, originating in the small West African nation of Togo, then going north to Spain, then east to Malaysia’s port of Klang and eventually destined for China. It is not clear where in Africa the ivory was from; conservationists say Togo is an emerging hub in the underground ivory trade and therefore the ivory might have been drawn from elephants killed across the continent.
Law enforcement officials have said that only well-oiled criminal syndicates have the money and skill to organize such large shipments. With the help of corrupt officials, they move hundreds of pounds of tusks thousands of miles across the globe, often using specially made shipping containers with such secret compartments. In some ports, like Mombasa, Kenya, only a relatively small percentage of containers is inspected, and ivory has been concealed in shipments of items including avocados and anchovies. Sometimes it is wrapped in chili peppers to throw off sniffer dogs.
But the ivory trade involves much more than organized crime. Some of Africa’s most notorious armed groups, including the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Shabab and Darfur’s janjaweed, are hunting down elephants and using the tusks to buy weapons and sustain their mayhem — both feeding off and fueling instability in turbulent nations.
Beyond that, members of some of the African armies that the American government trains and supports with millions of taxpayer dollars — like the Ugandan military, the Congolese Army and the military of newly independent South Sudan — have been implicated in poaching elephants and dealing in ivory.
“One wonders when this is going to end,” said Dr. Douglas-Hamilton, the founder of a nonprofit wildlife organization in Kenya called Save the Elephants.
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