By Lim Chia Ying
Malaysia is not spared as a transit point for illegal ivory shipment.
Every year, thousands of elephants in Africa are butchered for their highly-prized tusks to fuel a lucrative global trade and black market demand. The tusks are exported and smuggled into Asia, where they are turned into carved ornamental ivories.
Malaysia is not spared as a transit point for some of the shipments but thankfully, checks at immigration points have deterred several of the illicit cargoes. The Royal Malaysian Customs Department has, since 2012, made seven seizures valued at RM19,805,132, according to director-general Datuk Seri Khazali Ahmad.
“Up until 2012, all seizures of ivory were made at ports, in Klang, Pasir Gudang and Penang. But since 2013, seizures were made at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. We constantly monitor all points of entry as smugglers change their smuggling modus operandi to avoid detection.”
Khazali says all seized tusks are kept by the department to facilitate investigations. It maintains stock records and these are verified during store audits.
“Once the investigation is completed on our part, we will hand over the ivories to the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) for their disposal.
“However, the investigation process itself takes a long time, usually years, because of the amount of intelligence work involved to get to the bottom of the trafficking.”
Khazali says the department has handed over tusks valued at RM19,697,953 from five cases (from the seven confiscations made in 2012 and 2013) to Perhilitan for their handling. Last year’s seizures were valued at RM107,179. (He declined to give the tonnage for the stocks.)
“We don’t interfere with what Perhilitan does with the ivory (after the handing over), and we don’t follow up with them either,” says Khazali.
Activist Sean Whyte of Britain-based group Nature Alert had raised questions on the outcome of the seizures, particularly on where the tusks are. He claimed that no independent audit has been carried out on the seized ivory and questioned why the illicit stocks have not been destroyed as has been done in China. He also criticised the authorities for failing to make any arrests. Ivory is on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and so cannot be traded.
In response to the allegations, Khazali says: “The allegations are baseless. For what should we keep the stocks? All I have to say is that we are taking action to stop the illegal trade, are keeping an eye on ivory trading on our shores, and are serious about seizures. We want to make it clear that Malaysia is no springboard for this business to flourish.”
He adds that the seizures were made without any prosecutions and the investigations did not lead to arrests because Malaysia is at the tail-end of the smuggling. The poachers, he says, are not here and often, the logistics company for the shipment does not exist, all of which makes prosecution of the smugglers impossible.
“The only thing we can do is to catch hold of the consignment during its transfer and make sure it is not used illegally. They are usually not intended for the Malaysian market but for countries elsewhere. The perpetrators may think they can get pass us but our officers are always on the alert.”
Khazali says that between December 2013 and January 2014, Customs officers participated in Operation Cobra II organised by the World Customs Organisation for detection of wildlife crimes involving species protected by CITES. There are collaborations between domestic and international enforcement agencies as well as NGOs to take action on suspected shipments. Various risk indicators are used to detect high-risk shipments at seaports and the airport.
“As we cannot open the boxes, selected cargoes will undergo X-ray checks for suspicious images, while suspected ones will be subjected to full physical examination to detect ivory concealed among other goods,” explains Khazali.
Perhilitan enforcement division director Abdul Kadir Abu Hashim says there is no domestic industry for ivory products. Contrary to claims that there has been no arrests, he says a China national was prosecuted last January for attempting to smuggle 16 ivories at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal. He was imprisoned for two months and fined RM250,000.
On the seized tusks, Abdul Kadir says stocks are being held by Perhilitan. “The cargo is not lost and has not been sold. It is still with us for safe-keeping. Under CITES rules, we cannot sell this illegal cargo. We are also committed to report the government-held ivory stockpile to the CITES secretariat annually.”
He says Malaysia has developed a National Ivory Action Plan (which was submitted to CITES in 2013) with measures to prevent illegal import and re-export of ivory from Malaysian ports and entry points.