Recently, two South African tourists were processing through customs in Macau, en route from Hong Kong. As officials inspected the tourists’ luggage, they came upon 15 boxes of candy bars — 15 really, really heavy boxes of candy bars.
Anything out of the ordinary catches the immediate attention of customs officials, so they took a closer look. Inside the boxes were candy bars in wrappers. Since the boxes weighed a suspicious 75 lbs, the officials began trying to figure out what was going on.
“We tried to use pointed objects to break it. We failed because it was very hard,” customs official Mak Wun Yin told the Macau Daily Times. ”We tried several other methods and at last we soaked it in hot water. After soaking in water, it was easier for us to peel off the outer brown layer and discover that it was actually something white and hard.”
Yes, melting off the coating did the trick. What officials found were a staggering 583 pieces of ivory worth $76,000 that had been carefully cut to candy bar size, dipped in candy coating and sealed in familiar wrappers. All of it was, of course, intended for the international black market in illegal ivory. Legal trading of ivory was banned by the Convention on Illegal Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1989.
“Nothing shocks me anymore — especially at how far people will go to engage in illegal wildlife trade,” said Crawford Allan, director of TRAFFIC North America. “Luckily, officials detected the ‘chocolate’ ivory before the traffickers turned a profit. Unfortunately, these incidents are not isolated, and trade in illegal wildlife continues to be a major global problem.”
Disguising illegally poached ivory to sneak it out of the country is a tried and true smuggler’s technique. The candy maneuver isn’t new — between September and December 2012, officials seized more than 90 ivory seals, also called “name chops,” hidden as candy bars.
Ivory is camouflaged in many creative ways. In July 2013, for example, Hong Kong customs officials found 1,148 tusks disguised as timber on a ship outbound from Togo. That same month, officials in Kenya discovered three tons of ivory wrapped in burlap sacks and disguised as peanuts and another ton hidden under a shipment of fish bound for Malaysia.
Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam are considered the primary points of transit for illegal ivory being smuggled from Africa and Asia to Thailand and China. Officials are faced with a constant onslaught of ivory trafficking that’s difficult to control.
“China is the epicenter of demand,” the State Department’s Robert Hormats told the New York Times in 2012. “Without the demand from China, this would all but dry up.”
Worldwide, the illegal ivory trade kills nearly 30,000 elephants every year, netting poachers up to $10 billion annually, according to the World Wildlife Fund. It’s little wonder elephants are struggling to survive. To poachers, they are worth more dead than alive.
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