Dubai: As the planet marks World Elephant Day today, Dubai Customs say intensive police and Customs efforts by UAE appear to be cutting off a vital pipeline used to ship illegal ivory from Africa to Far East destinations.
Field and intelligence reports by UAE authorities, Interpol and International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) are infiltrating illegal ivory trade networks and stemming the flow of elephant tusks through major transit hubs such as Dubai, officials said.
Sophisticated operations on the ground in Kenya and Tanzania which smuggle banned ivory tusks hacksawed from the carcasses of wild African elephants to China and Thailand markets appear to be now giving UAE a wide berth based on plummeting seizure statistics.
In contrast to more than 1,500 ivory seizures by Dubai Customs between 2011 and 2014, figures show that only one ivory seizure has been made in Dubai in the first six months of 2015.
Saeed Ahmad Al Tayer, Executive Director of Policies and Legislation Division at Dubai Customs, confirmed that illegal ivory shipment seizures have dropped substantially.
“It seems that after the vast confiscations in 2012 and 2013, there have been no more major seizures of ivory in Dubai,” Al Tayer told Gulf News on Tuesday.
“This somehow indicates that the smugglers are trying to find another route for their illicit ivory trade due to the high alertness and joint determination of Customs and all concerned authorities to crack down on the wildlife crime,” he said.
The declining statistics are considered a small victory in an ongoing war against poachers to stop the slaughter that some experts speculate has claimed 30 per cent of the last remaining African elephant population in the last three years, reducing herds that once numbered in the millions to slightly above 400,000.
At an annual 10 per cent poaching rate, what’s left of wild elephants in Africa could be decimated in as little as 10 years.
And, with raw ivory fetching more than $2,000 per kilogram in China and Thailand where sales of ivory goods have reportedly tripled in the last year, the demand is not likely to wane. On the ground in Africa, one kilogram of ivory is worth roughly $100, giving smugglers a 20-fold markup when delivered to Far East markets.
Interpol says tighter border controls are catching more smugglers.
Earlier this month, for example, a Chinese national en route to Dubai was stopped at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, on suspicion that he was a mule for the illicit ivory trade.
When he was stripped down in an airport interview room, authorities discovered the suspect was carrying 9.12kg of ivory pebbles strapped to his body.
According to a Purple Notice issued by Interpol, the ivory mule operation was being conducted via a body jacket and sock-like wrappings.
Interpol said the suspect was “arrested while attempting to travel from Kenya to Hong Kong via Dubai on a business-class ticket. The worked ivory pebbles were fitted in a body vest and leg wraps concealed under the suspect’s outer garments.”
Officials also recovered more ivory pebbles from two boxes found in the suspect’s possession.
The unidentified man has since pleaded guilty, was fined 1 million Kenyan shillings (Dh36,417) and was sentenced to five years in prison.
The way that the ivory was being smuggled in small pieces is in marked contrast to traditional smuggling operations using larger ivory pieces shipped in containers often through shipping ports with faux consignment manifests.
Keep up the fight
Azzedine Downes, IFAW CEO and President, told Gulf News in an interview from his agency’s Boston headquarters that ivory-trade networks run by organised crime are driven by the high value of ivory and will stop at nothing to get their ill-gotten gains past border controls.
“What’s happening is that the price of ivory has gone so high, people are speculating on it as currency,” said Downes. “People are calling it white gold.”
To get the ivory to market, massive tusks are being chopped into smaller pieces that are easier to smuggle through Customs checks, Downes said.
Recent ivory crushing events such as the one in April by Dubai authorities are ensuring that ivory pieces are pulverised into pieces so small the value is non existent, he said.
Dr Rashid Ahmad Bin Fahd, Minister of Environment and Water, told Gulf News at the ivory crushing event that “the value of a live elephant is higher than the worth of all the ivory that we see today”.
Bin Fahd pledged that “the UAE will do its utmost to prevent and stop such illegal trade and the harm done to elephants”.
The 10 tonnes of ivory pieces that Dubai crushed were — before their destruction — fashioned into smaller round shapes that could have been en route to the Far East to be later fashioned into intricate official stamps for businesses or family crests used to verify documents, Downes said.
“It was interesting that this ivory shipment that was confiscated wasn’t already worked on, it looked like it came out of a factory,” Downes said.
Smaller pieces of ivory are also being smuggled inside other shipments of common commodities in the hope that they will be overlooked by authorities.
“One of the things that the networks are doing is shipping the ivory in bags of coffee and beans. They’re resorting to all kinds of things,” he said.
“We are very pleased by what the UAE is doing. By all indications, they are squeezing the networks. Police, Customs, airline officials are shutting down the networks that move the ivory. Sharing information about how the networks move and work is critical.”
Downes said an agreement inked between IFAW and Interpol in Paris in May 2013 to stop poachers and networks is working.