DUBAI //A huge consignment of ivory, valued at about Dh5.5million, intercepted on Tuesday in Sri Lanka en route to Dubai had probably been destined for East Asia, not the UAE, an animal welfare expert says.
The illegal consignment, which would have meant at least 180 elephants would have had to been killed, was seized at Colombo port by Sri Lankan customs officers after a tip-off.
The shipment, which consisted of 359 pieces and weighed 1.5 tonnes, had come from Kenya and was hidden among logs in containers marked plastic waste. No arrests have yet been made.
"If the shipment was coming to the UAE it would probably have been for re-export somewhere else," said Dr Elsayed Mohamed, programme manager at the Dubai office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw).
"This is a regular way of shipping, we have seen this before. It is a way for smugglers to try to evade the authorities and cover up their smuggling.
"If they take it directly from Kenya, the authorities in the Far East will check any shipment coming from Africa for ivory.
"So they use indirect routes because they believe the authorities will not be expecting a shipment from somewhere else.
"The shipment weighed 1.5 tonnes so it would have been going to a carving factory, which do not exist at all here in the UAE. These factories are mostly in the Far East."
Jason Bell, director of Ifaw's elephant programme, said: "The boldness of these thugs in attempting to sidestep authorities by developing a complex web of delivery networks is quite breathtaking. "The ivory is smuggled into markets in Europe and Asia, most often China."
A senior officer at Sri Lankan Customs said an investigation into the case would be completed in two weeks, by which time officers would know who the intended buyer was.
"The consignment remains in Colombo at the moment," said Udayanath Liyanage, the deputy director of Central Intelligence.
"We have not come across such a large quantity before in the entire region. It has a huge value on the black market, with each kilogram fetching US$1,000 [Dh3,673]."
Mr Liyanage said the tip-off leading to the seizure came from the World Customs Organisation's regional intelligence liaison office for Asia and the Pacific region, based in Seoul, South Korea.
Jang Gwang-hyeon, the office's deputy head, said 50 seizures of elephant tusks were reported worldwide last year for a total quantity of 2,481 tusks.
"The ships mostly departed from African countries and their final destination was an Asian country," Mr Gwang-hyeon said.
The elephants are sometimes gunned down by poaching gangs from helicopters.
"The poachers usually kill every animal in range, so if it is a herd of up to 20 elephants they will kill everything," he added.
"We have noticed a high level of poaching in Africa in the past three months. High demand in the Far East is encouraging the poachers."
This year, 650 free-roaming elephants were killed by poachers in northern Cameroon.
"This counts as one of the largest elephant ivory seizures we've heard about so far," said Ahmad Mahboob Mosabah, executive director of the customer management division at Dubai Customs. "We congratulate the Sri Lankan authorities for such an accomplishment.
"We are in continuous communication with various Customs departments around the world.
"We exchange information about smuggling operations and the trade in endangered wild flora and fauna."
Pieces of elephant tusk were among the items on show at a recent display of seized products made from animals, which Dubai Customs organised to raise awareness.
Mr Mosabah said anyone with information about smuggling should call the department's toll-free hotline on 80080080.