When Hong Kong custom officers seized a 40-foot container that had raised their suspicions, they had no idea what was in it. So they carefully opened it up to make sure that there was nothing untoward inside. But what they found was absolutely stomach-turning and shocked them to the core.
When it comes to cargo traffic, Hong Kong International is the world’s busiest airport. It’s also the eighth-most-used passenger airport on Earth. Thanks to its strategic location, the transport hub serves as a gateway to China and the rest of Asia.
To ensure that things run smoothly, the airport employs an impressive 65,000 staff. Their job is helping 68.5 million passengers reach their destinations safely each year. Customs officers serve another very important role, however, ensuring that nothing untoward passes through the terminal.
And in July 2017 those officers made one of their most sickening discoveries to date. That’s when they grew suspicious about a shipment that had arrived at the airport’s Kwai Chung Customhouse Cargo Examination Compound. The container in question was large – 40-foot long – and had arrived in Hong Kong from Malaysia.
Whoever sent the huge container had labelled it as “frozen fish.” However, something told the custom officers that all was not as it seemed. As a result, they decided to open the container up and take a quick peek inside.
At first, it seemed that the officers’ suspicions had been completely unfounded. That’s because when they lifted the lid off the container, they did indeed find packages of frozen fish. As they removed the layer of seafood, however, they made the most disgusting discovery.
Customs had in fact uncovered 7.2 tons of illegal elephant tusks. The seizure was the biggest in history. Experts estimated that it was worth more than $9.2 million. And to acquire such a huge quantity of ivory, they believed that between 700 and 1,000 elephants would have been killed.
The discovery obviously caused enormous concern to conservationists. Throughout Africa and Asia, elephant numbers are on the decline. The animals face a number of dangers including habitat destruction and human conflict. Ivory poaching, however, still poses the biggest threat to their survival.
Rob Brandford is the executive director at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. The organization runs a sanctuary for baby elephants that have been left orphaned by the ivory trade. And according to Brandford, this barbaric practice affects every elephant – not just those that are killed.
“The effect on elephant populations is evident. Not only in numbers, with only 400,000 elephants alive today, but also behavior and lost knowledge,” Brandford explained to The Dodo. “Their deaths will impact their herds.”
Brandford went on to explain that, because elephants form strong bonds with their herds, deaths can have a devastating effect. These are emotionally intelligent animals that can show signs of anger and even grief. “Elephants mourn their dead like humans,” Brandford revealed.
The outlook for elephants is so worrying that some conservationists predict that the animals could be extinct within two decades. That’s why Hong Kong has penalties in place to punish those found guilty of transporting illegal ivory.
After launching an investigation into the record haul at Hong Kong International Airport, the authorities arrested the owner of a local trading company, along with two of his employees. The investigation is ongoing but, if found guilty, their punishment could be severe.
Exporting or importing incorrectly labelled cargo can be punished with a fine of up to $250,000 and a prison sentence of up to seven years. If found guilty of illegally transporting an endangered species, the culprit can receive fine of more than $500,000 and two years in jail.
Conservationists welcomed the authorities’ swift reaction to the illegal haul. “Hong Kong Customs are to be warmly congratulated on this important seizure,” read a statement by Dr. Yannick Kuehl on the website of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade-monitoring network. “But it is vital for a full and thorough investigation to take place in the aftermath to find out who was orchestrating this massive movement of contraband.”
The investigation into the record-breaking ivory shipment is likely to take some time, however. According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, seizures of 500 kilograms or more are likely to be the result of organized crime. As a result, the giant haul has had to be forensically examined to produce as many leads as possible.
Although he was pleased with Hong Kong’s response in this case, Kuehl said that the Chinese territory could still do more. “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,” his statement continued. “The case for increasing penalties has never been stronger.”
Kuehl’s remarks came as Hong Kong continued to review its wildlife crime legislation. The territory is keen to phase out its domestic ivory trade within five years. The rest of China, meanwhile, has ambitious plans to end its trade before 2018.
Mainland China was once the world’s biggest ivory market. But thanks to a concerted effort by the authorities there, the country has recently shut down one-third of all ivory-carving factories and shops. If their efforts are to have a greater impact, however, some observers have suggested that Hong Kong needs to step up to the plate as well.
“This incident is further evidence that Hong Kong’s legal ivory market is being used to launder tusks from elephants slaughtered in Africa,” said Alex Hofford, from the environmental group WildAid. “To stop criminal syndicates from driving elephants to extinction, Hong Kong must ban the trade immediately, increase penalties for wildlife crime and end the demand for ivory.”