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More than 200 African elephant tusks seized from shipment in Thailand

February 25, 2010 |  5:35 pm


BANGKOK — Thailand has seized two tons of elephant tusks from Africa hidden in pallets labeled as mobile phone parts in the country's largest ivory seizure.

Thai customs officials valued Wednesday night's haul at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport at 120 million baht ($3.6 million). It is a further sign that Thailand is emerging as a hub for the illicit trade.

Poaching of elephants in central and eastern Africa has intensified in recent years, with much of the illegal ivory exported to Asia.

Seree Thaijongrak, director of the investigation and suppression bureau for the Customs Department, said that acting on a tip, officials seized two pallets containing 239 tusks of African elephants.

The consignment, which originated in South Africa, was labeled as mobile phone parts destined for Laos -- apparently to confuse customs officials because Laos has an agreement with neighboring Thailand not to check cargo in transit. 

A Thai national, however, attempted to pick up the cargo and was detained, Seree said. Customs officials suspect the tusks would have been crafted into trinkets and jewelry in Thailand.

"This is the biggest seizure we have ever had," Seree said. "This is a real accomplishment for Thailand. Normally, this would have gone right through but we got the tip-off."

Seree said smuggling of ivory from Africa is on the rise in Thailand as in much of Southeast Asia.

Ivory shipped to Thailand typically goes to carvers who fashion it into Buddhist statues, bangles and jewelry for sale to tourists or sale in other countries. Thailand is also a transit point for ivory forwarded to other markets like China.

Last month, Thailand arrested two Thai women accused of dealing in illegal African ivory, a day after an American and a Thai national were indicted in California on charges of smuggling ivory into the United States. Police believe the women supplied ivory to the Thai national, who prosecutors say sold several pieces of ivory on EBay, disguising shipments as gifts and toys.

The U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species banned all international ivory trade in 1989. Traders in Thailand have thrived in part because the 1989 ban did not address domestic trade. That loophole allows them to deceive authorities by claiming that their African ivory came from domestic sources -- a tactic that is effective because it can be difficult without DNA testing to tell the difference between African and Asian ivory.

Authorities say 10 tons of African ivory were seized in Southeast Asia last year, including three seizures in Thailand.

-- Associated Press

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Photo: Thai customs officials examine seized elephant tusks at Bangkok's international airport. Credit: Thai Customs Dept. / AFP/Getty Images

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