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Busted: 1,835 elephant tusks confiscated in two seizures connected by Malaysia

Two massive seizures in the last week—one in Zanzibar and the other in Hong Kong—have confiscated nearly two thousand ivory tusks as elephant poaching continues to rise. Both seizures have connections to Malaysia, highlighting the growing role of a new intermediate player in the illegal ivory trade.

One thousand forty-one tusks were seized in Zanzibar, Tanzania after officials found the hidden stash in a massive container of anchovies. Smugglers appeared to hope the smell of anchovies would put off officials from a closer look.

“As the country with the second largest elephant population in Africa, it’s vitally important that Tanzania demonstrates good law enforcement, not only in terms of interdiction, but also subsequent investigation, arrest and prosecution of those responsible for the crime,” Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC’s Elephant and Rhino Program Co-ordinator, said in a press release. TRAFFIC is a global organization devoted to regulating the wildlife trade.

“The seizure represents a minimum of 500 dead elephants so it’s essential to find out who was behind the killings and how come the ivory got as far as it did,” Milliken added.

Three days later, 794 ivory tusk pieces were confiscated in Hong Kong. They were concealed in a shipping container camouflaged by stones.

“This looks like another huge consignment of ivory aimed at the Chinese market,” said Milliken. Experts agree that the rise in elephant poaching, which is decimating a number of elephant populations, is largely due to growing demand in China for ivory products.

Both seizures have Malaysia in common: the Tanzania seizure was en route to the southeast Asian country, while the Hong Kong seizure had just arrived from there.

A 2009 study by the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), which has tracked every ivory and elephant part seizure since 1989 (around 17,000 to date), found that “Malaysia has progressively gained prominence in successive ETIS analyses as a transit country for African ivory.”

Milliken took a hard line on Malaysia, saying, “It’s time for Malaysia to get tough on international ivory smugglers, who are tarnishing the country’s reputation.”

African elephants (Loxodonta africana) are currently listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, while Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) are listed as Endangered. Both species face habitat loss, elephant-human conflict, and, of course, a rise in poaching. Scientists have recently suggested that there is an additional species of elephant in Africa: the forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), which has long been considered a subspecies. Smaller than its savanna cousin with straighter tusks,the forest elephant inhabits the rainforests of central Africa, including the Congo. Experts believe poaching may be hitting the as yet unrecognized forest elephant the hardest of all.

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