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Malaysia intercepts 24 tons of elephant ivory being smuggled to China

Two elephants.
Photo by Rhett Butler.

Malaysian authorities made their largest-ever ivory bust after uncovering 24 tons of “white gold” hidden in crates designed to look like stacks of sawn wood. The street value of the ivory may exceed $25 million.

The ivory comes from over 750 elephants, according to conservationist Paula Kahumbu. The shipment originated in Togo, but the elephants were likely killed in other parts of Africa, since the West African nation has less than 200 pachyderms.

Malaysian customs officials say the shipment traveled from Togo to Algeria to Spain to Malaysia. The contraband was destined for China, which is the largest consumer of ivory products.

With a rising middle class in China and Vietnam, the illegal ivory trade is booming. The Wildlife Conservation Society estimates that 30,000 elephants have been killed in 2012 alone for their tusks.

According to recent investigations by the Environmental Investigation Agency and TRAFFIC, the ivory business is increasingly controlled by criminal syndicates. Some violent groups — including the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Shabab in Somalia — are said to be using proceeds from ivory sales to buy weapons. However government forces in DRC and South Sudan have also been implicated in the trade.

The Malaysian seizure comes less than a month-and-a-half after two separate busts in Hong Kong, which netted 5.3 tons of ivory.

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