Sihanoukville customs officials on Friday seized more than three tons of ivory-the biggest ever haul in Cambodia-from inside two container ships supposedly transporting beans from Malaysia.
“We confiscated about three tons of ivory hidden in two containers of beans around 8 a.m. Friday,” said Bun Choeu, deputy director of the customs office at the Sihanoukville Autonomous Port.
“This is the biggest ever haul of ivory seized by officials in Cambodia,” he added.
Mr. Choeu said the ivory was being kept by customs in storage at the port as officials continued to investigate.
Pen Sitha, deputy director of the Sihanoukville Autonomous Port, said Friday that standard screening of the two containers had led his team to dig through the beans and find the elephant tusks.
“Customs scans of the containers that were carrying beans from Malaysia were so strange that we suspected something and checked inside the containers,” Mr. Sitha said.
Customs then opened the containers and found 3,008 kg of elephant tusks of all sizes, bound in 108 separate packages of five tusks or more.
Mr. Sitha said shipping records at the port showed that the two containers had been consigned by a shipping company called Olair Worldwide Logistics.
Olair is listed in the Yellow Pages and a number of business websites as having offices in Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh. But people who answered calls to phone numbers accompanying those listings Friday claimed not to know the company.
Tep Asnarith, communications manger for the WWF in Cambodia, said that Friday’s haul was further evidence that ivory dealers were increasingly using Cambodia as a transit point between Africa, the source of most of the ivory, and Vietnam and China, the biggest markets for its sale, where it is believed to have mystical medicinal properties and can fetch upwards of $2,000 per kg.
According to the WWF, on average, mature elephants tusks weigh around 30 kg. each. At those numbers, Friday’s haul could have a street value in the tens of millions.
“This is huge,” Mr. Asnarith said. “And very concerning.”
“This is probably the biggest haul ever in Cambodia. We don’t know a lot about the trafficking of ivory, but we do know that Cambodia is being used as a transit point by traffickers,” he said.
In March, military police in Svay Rieng province seized more than 250 kg of elephant tusks stashed inside 10 suitcases in a van headed for Vietnam.
In February, two Vietnamese men were caught attempting to board a flight from Siem Reap International Airport with 79 kg of African elephant ivory.
Customs officials said at the time that smugglers were increasingly using Cambodia to move ivory to China and Vietnam as a result of then-Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s 2013 pledge to crack down on the illegal trade.
One of the biggest-ever recorded hauls of confiscated ivory came in Port Klang, Malaysia, in December 2012, when authorities there found more than 2,300 pieces of ivory weighing upwards of 6 tons stashed inside two shipments of mahogany.
The ivory in Asia is fueling a surge in elephant poaching in Africa. According to the WWF, some 30,000 elephants were slaughtered there last year, leaving the African elephant on the verge of extinction.