The seizure on Friday of a large haul of African elephant tusks in Svay Rieng province, only one month after police intercepted a large ivory haul in Siem Reap, could indicate that Cambodia is becoming a major transit point for illegal ivory, experts said Monday.
The ivory seized by police on Friday included over 250 kg of elephant tusks stashed inside a van driving toward the Vietnamese border. The van’s driver escaped the scene and is at large.
There is no market in Cambodia for ivory. But conservation group WWF Cambodia said that the country, which once was a route for illegal ivory, could be back on the map as a transit route for ivory headed to Vietnam and China.
“It is a clear signal that urgent attention is required to determine whether the illegal trade is flowing through Cambodia,” said Seang Teak, conservation program director of WWF Greater Mekong.
“The Cambodian government needs a systemic approach and needs to establish a rigorous system of checks…. We should not overlook the fact that potentially there is a greater volume of ivory being transported through the country than we know,” he said.
Svay Rieng military police only stumbled upon the ivory after stopping a van heading toward the Vietnamese border they suspected might be smuggling luxury rosewood. Instead, they found 77 pieces of African ivory inside 10 suitcases.
“This was an accidental seizure, because we didn’t suspect smugglers were operating in the area, but we are cooperating now [with conservation groups] to find out how the ivory got here,” said Chheang Mounghoung, provincial Forestry Administration chief.
In 2012, there were five foiled attempts by ivory smugglers to reach Cambodian airports through Thailand. Customs police suspected at the time that highly organized criminal gangs were probing Cambodia for weak spots as they sought new routes into Vietnam and China—the world’s most lucrative black markets, where ivory can fetch $2,200 per kg.
There has been a surge in poaching in Africa, where 30,000 elephants were killed last year fueled by demand in Asian markets, where indigenous elephant populations have been poached to the edge of extinction.
Khem Vong, project manager of Wildlife Alliance’s Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team—which has been credited for reducing the illegal ivory and wildlife trade in Cambodia—said it has been a long time since Cambodia was used as an ivory transit country, but that the evidence now points to a resumption of transboundary smuggling.
“I saw the African ivory with my own eyes on Saturday, and I think it is clear this may be becoming a big problem,” Mr. Vong said.
Mr. Vong said Cambodia is part of the Asean Wildlife Alliance Network, a regional law enforcement network that is working hard across Southeast Asia to stem the influx of African ivory.
“[Cambodia is] doing a lot of work on transboundary smuggling, but we are mostly at the training stage in airports and at land boundaries. But we will be really stepping up our activities in 2014,” he said.