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Hong Kong customs officers arrested a man and two women after making the biggest ivory bust in 30 years, seizing 7.2 tonnes of tusks with an estimated street value of HK$72 million.
The smuggling ring attempted to hide the illegal ivory tusks in a 40-foot refrigerated container from Malaysia and covered it up with frozen fish. It was first time customs had seen this method.
The enormous haul is 1.5 times more than the total illicit ivory seized in the past 3.5 years combined, as customs officials netted 4,694kg of illegal ivory between 2014 and last month.
The container, which was declared to contain 7,000 kg of frozen fish in 1,000 cartons, arrived at the Kwai Chung Customhouse Cargo Examination Compound in Kowloon on Tuesday.
Officers believed the shipment was suspicious as the declared goods only occupied half of the total volume and weight that such a container could carry.
Raymond Chan Wan-hung, head of the ports control group from the Customs and Excise Department said: “After we removed the frozen fish cartons, we found the illicit ivory concealed in nylon bags.”
Chan said it was the biggest seizure since records began.
Head of the special investigation group, Simon Wan Hing-chuen, believed there was a big smuggling syndicate involved, given the large quantities of contraband. Officers arrested a male proprietor and two female staff members of a trading company in Tuen Mun on Wednesday. The three are aged between 42 and 57 and believed to be core members of the syndicate.
“We do not think that Hong Kong is the final destination. In this case, the tusks would probably be further exported to other nearby Southeast Asian countries,” Wan said, adding that it was very common for smugglers to take advantage of the city’s extensive logistics network.
He did not rule out further arrests in the coming weeks.
In Hong Kong, any person found guilty of importing or exporting an endangered species without a licence is liable to a maximum fine of HK$5 million and imprisonment for two years.
“This massive seizure once again shows that Hong Kong is a major hub for the illegal wildlife trade,” Cheryl Lo, WWF-Hong Kong senior wildlife crime officer, said.
She noted that Hong Kong ranked fifth globally in terms of ivory contraband – with 33 tonnes seized between 2000 and 2013.
“We are calling on lawmakers to end this brutal trade as soon as possible. With over 20,000 elephants killed in Africa every year, there is no time to waste,” she said.
Lawmakers are set to start discussions today on a government bill aimed at phasing out the local ivory businesses by 2021.
The city has been under international pressure to speed up the process.
As of last year, there were reportedly 370 licence holders in Hong Kong, who had 70 tonnes of legal ivory.
China, which has been the largest consumer, announced that it was banning all trade in ivory by the end of this year.