Malaysia under Scrutiny as Illegal Ivory Seizures Spike in August

By International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development

Late August saw a surge in arrests related to the illicit trade of African ivory with the seizure of two major shipments destined for markets in Asia. Tanzanian officials on 24 August announced the discovery of more than 1,000 elephant tusks hidden in a shipment of dried fish bound for Malaysia. Five days later, Hong Kong authorities intercepted a further 794 tusks – weighing close to two tonnes – from Malaysia bound for Mainland China.

The timing of the seizures coincides with a major illegal wildlife trade training session presented by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Interpol in Gaborone, Botswana. Officials from IFAW said the Tanzanian shipment underscores the fact that more training is needed to help save elephants – particularly those in the Congo Basin, which are most threatened.

“We need a global outcry to spur investment in creating the necessary wildlife law enforcement capacity to take on the international criminal syndicates who benefit from these massacres,” said James Isiche, IFAW’s East Africa director.

Countries across sub-Saharan Africa have been struggling with how to effectively deal with poachers, who target elephants and rhinos for their tusks which are used for ornaments and in medicines, particularly in China.

Illicit trade in African ivory has been on the increase since 2004, with many experts pointing to increased disposable income in China as a major factor in growing demand. According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), China is now the single biggest consumer of illegal ivory.

But Malaysia – the common link in the late-August seizures – is increasingly under scrutiny for its role as a hub for illegal wildlife shipments northward. In the past decade, Hong Kong authorities have intercepted two other major shipments of African ivory from the Southeast Asian country also destined for Mainland China.

In December 2009, Hong Kong customs officials seized a container shipped from Malaysia containing 186 pieces of Nigerian ivory. The container was erroneously labelled “white wood.” Similarly, in 2003, police seized 275 tusks en route from Malaysia, weighing nearly 2 tonnes. The Tusks had originally been shipped from Tanzania.

The Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), an illegal ivory trade monitoring system operated by monitoring agency TRAFFIC on behalf of CITES, says Malaysia has progressively gained prominence as a transit country of choice for African ivory.

“This latest Hong Kong seizure further underscores Malaysia’s role as an intermediary country in the illicit flow of African ivory to Asia,” said Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC’s Elephant & Rhino Programme Coordinator. “It’s time for Malaysia to get tough on international ivory smugglers, who are tarnishing the country’s reputation.”

The shipment of Tanzanian elephant tusks concealed in sacks of dried sardines was also earmarked for export to Malaysia. Authorities in Zanzibar have arrested two suspects.