Two Vietnamese men arrested Sunday at Siem Reap International Airport carrying 79 kg of African elephant tusks inside three suitcases were charged Tuesday by the provincial court with smuggling illegal ivory, officials said.
The men flew to Siem Reap from South Africa via South Korea and were planning to travel overland to Vietnam, which is one of the world’s major destinations for illegal ivory, alongside China. They now face up to five years in prison after confessing to police, said Tea Kimsoth, chief of Siem Reap province’s forestry administration.
“They will serve between one and five years in prison and face fines of between 10 million and 100 million riel [about $2,500 to $25,000] according to the forestry law,” he said.
Last year, there were five separate unsuccessful attempts by smugglers to use Siem Reap airport as a transit point for ivory shipped from various African countries, but on each occasion the smugglers were traveling via Thailand, said airport customs chief Ang Sokhenor.
In August, two Vietnamese nationals were apprehended at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport attempting to board a flight to Siem Reap with 27 elephant tusks in their luggage worth about $500,000.
But Mr. Sokhenor said that Sunday’s arrests suggest smugglers are trying out new routes as they try to reach the lucrative black markets in Vietnam and China, where ivory can fetch $2,200 per kilogram.
“Before, they were coming from Thailand but all of their ivory was seized, so now they may be changing direction, coming from Africa via South Korea instead,” he said.
A massive surge in wildlife poaching in Africa resulted in the slaughter of more than 30,000 elephants last year for their ivory.
Tom Gray, head of Species, Protected Areas and Wildlife Trade for WWF Greater Mekong, said Cambodia used to be a transit point in the ivory trade, but recent evidence suggested that this was no longer true.
He said it was too early to tell if Cambodia is back on the map as an illegal ivory thoroughfare.
“There’s not enough evidence at this stage, though smugglers are organized and professional so they will target what they believe is a weak link and exploit it,” he said.