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Authorities in Hong Kong have announced what they say is the world’s largest ever seizure of about 7.2 tonnes of ivory tusks with an estimated street value close to HK$72m (£7m).
If the size of the haul is verified, it will replace the current record held by Singapore for a seizure of 7.138 tonnes of ivory tusks in 2002.
The EU’s environment commissioner, Karmenu Vella, told the Guardian: “The authorities of Hong Kong did a great job with this massive ivory seizure. It indicates that ivory trafficking continues at shocking levels. But it showcases how coordinated enforcement action brings results. Our EU action plan against wildlife trafficking is a significant part of this coordination.
“Arresting wildlife criminals is a priority for us and we will continue to work with countries all over the world to clamp down on these transnational criminal activities.”
Hong Kong customs inspectors found the cargo on Tuesday when they searched a Malaysian shipment declared to be containing frozen fish at the Kwai Chung custom house.
The owner of a trading company and two staff members were arrested after the tusks were found hidden beneath frozen fish cartons in the 12-metre (40ft) container.
Yannick Kuehl, the East Asia director of the conservation group Traffic, warmly congratulated the Hong Kong authorities for the groundbreaking seizure. “But it is vital for a full and thorough investigation to take place to find out who was orchestrating this massive movement of contraband,” he added.
Ivory hauls of 500kg or more are thought to indicate involvement of organised crime gangs, according to Cites guidelines, and Hong Kong has long been viewed as a hub of smuggling activity, partly because of its legal “worked” ivory-carvings market, which smugglers can infiltrate.
Between 2014 and 2015, imports of worked ivory pieces from the EU rose from 1,572 to 10,671 pieces, according to data from the Hong Kong government’s agriculture, fisheries and conservation department.
Daniela Freyer, of the Pro Wildlife campaign group, said the seizure announced today was “an alarm call for the immediate shutdown of Hong Kong’s ivory markets once and for all.
“Further delays of a ban on ivory would be deadly for Africa’s elephants,” she added.
A review of the territory’s wildlife crime laws is under way, with a phase-out of the domestic ivory trade within five years being debated by Hong Kong’s legislative council. China has said that it will end domestic ivory trading before 2018.
“No doubt Hong Kong’s geographic location, coupled with the currently relatively lenient penalties in place for anyone convicted of wildlife crime, are reasons behind the shipment coming through the port,” Kuehl said. “The case for increasing penalties has never been stronger.”
Under Hong Kong law, wildlife smuggling is punishable by a fine of up to HK$5m, while trafficking contraband can trigger a maximum prison sentence of seven years.