About $1 million worth of illegal African ivory was seized at Hong Kong customs on Tuesday after the discovery—in 32 suitcases en route from Angola—of hundreds of kilograms of tusks on a flight bound for Cambodia, regional media reported Wednesday.
Fifteen Vietnamese nationals were detained after a luggage search uncovered 790 kg of raw ivory and semi-finished ivory products at Hong Kong International Airport, according to Channel News Asia.
The plane was in transit to Cambodia via South Korea, customs official Ng King-hong was quoted as saying.
It is now clearly established that Cambodia has become a major transit route for ivory smuggled from Africa. In March, three tons of illegal elephant ivory were uncovered in two cargo containers at Sihanoukville Autonomous Port.
Police that month also stopped smugglers in Svay Rieng province with a quarter ton concealed in a van, while in 2012, smugglers with ivory tried five times to reach Cambodian airports through Thailand, and once via South Korea.
Alex Hofford, co-founder of conservation group Hong Kong for Elephants, said that Cambodia must now in itself be considered a rapidly emerging ivory-consumption hotspot, the South China Morning Post reported Wednesday.
But that suggestion was scotched by Tom Gray, head of Species, Protected Areas and Wildlife Trade for WWF Greater Mekong, who said there was no evidence at all to suggest Cambodia had a rekindled domestic ivory market.
“I think there is absolutely no evidence that there is a market in Cambodia and all the evidence points to either China, or Thailand, where despite efforts from the Thai government, we know there is still a huge demand,” he said.
Jasmine Williamson, project administrator for Stop Ivory, which works with governments and conservation groups, agreed Cambodia was an unlikely destination.
“I really would be surprised (and very alarmed) if Cambodia was suddenly a significant destination as opposed to just a transit point,” she said by email.
Kin Ly, the head of the Sihanoukville port’s customs and excise department, said that the haul in Hong Kong was unsurprising as ivory smugglers are evidently using many tactics to move ivory through Cambodia.
“But our country is only a crossing point to China, or Vietnam. In Cambodia, ivory is not prized in the same way, so we simply do not have a market for it,” he said.
He added that the investigation into May’s seizure—Cambodia’s largest ever—was continuing and that the three tons of ivory was still being stored at the port.
“We have performed analysis on it and are now conducting workshops with our customs officials for education purposes, to teach them how to measure tusks, scan and search for ivory,” he said.