Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department seized about 7,200 kilograms of ivory tusks in a shipping container from Malaysia, the largest seizure of its kind since the international commercial ivory trade was banned in 1989.
Customs agents arrested a man running a trade company in Tuen Mun and two women working for him. The three suspects are aged between 42 and 57.
The 40-foot container had been declared as containing frozen fish at the Kwai Chung Customhouse Cargo Examination Compound. Customs officers decided to check its contents after risk assessment suggested it was suspicious.
Upon inspection, ivory tusks with an estimated market value of HK$72 million were found beneath the frozen fish cartons.
A senior customs official said Hong Kong might not be the final destination of the shipment based on the quantity, which is about a tenth of the recorded ivory stock in the city and 50 percent more than the total seizures over the past three years, Ming Pao Daily reported.
There could be a large smuggling syndicate behind them, according to the official, who noted that more arrests are possible as investigations continue.
The Hong Kong branch of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) said the fact that local ivory traders have been asking the government to buy their inventory with public money as compensation might be one of the reasons that encouraged the smuggling of ivory tusks into the city.
An officer at the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said most of the impounded ivory tusks will be donated to schools and other organizations for the purposes of education and science research while the rest will be incinerated, news website hk01.com reported.
Under the Import and Export Ordinance, any person found guilty of importing or exporting unmanifested cargo is liable to a maximum fine of HK$2 million and imprisonment for seven years.
Under the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance, any person without a license found guilty of importing or exporting endangered species, whether alive or dead, in parts or derivatives, is liable to a fine of up to HK$5 million and a jail term of up to two years.
The Legislative Council was set to review regulations on Friday with an aim of eliminating local ivory trade.
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