Malaysia seizes more than S$1.3m worth of trafficked wildlife products at airport

Over three hundred kilograms of Pangolin scales from the Republic of Congo via Ethiopian Airlines and 75.74 kg of elephant tusks via Etihad Airways from Lagos-Abu Dhabi-Kuala Lumpur were seized at KLIA airport. PHOTO: EPA
Over three hundred kilograms of Pangolin scales from the Republic of Congo via Ethiopian Airlines and 75.74 kg of elephant tusks via Etihad Airways from Lagos-Abu Dhabi-Kuala Lumpur were seized at KLIA airport. PHOTO: EPAPHOTO: EPA

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian authorities seized trafficked ivory tusks and pangolin scales worth nearly US$1 million (S$1.36 million) over the weekend, airport customs officials said on Wednesday (Aug 2), the latest in a series of seizures in Asia of products made from endangered animals.

Malaysia has been singled out by conservationists as a major transit point for the illegal trafficking of endangered species, as well as products made from them. Last month, Hong Kong seized more than 7,200kg of ivory tusks shipped from Malaysia, the largest single seizure in 30 years.

Officials on Sunday afternoon found 23 ivory tusks, weighing about 76kg, in a cargo warehouse at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), the Customs Department's Assistant Director-General of Enforcement Mohammad Pudzi Man told reporters.

The tusks, valued at RM275,000 (S$87,079), had been shipped on an Etihad Airways flight from Lagos, Nigeria, via Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Later on Sunday, six sacks containing 300.9kg of pangolin scales worth RM3.9 million were found in the same cargo warehouse. The scales were shipped from the Democratic Republic of Congo on Ethiopian Airlines.

Both shipments were sent to fake addresses and their recipients could not be traced, Mr Mohammad Pudzi said.

It was not clear if Malaysia was the final destination for the shipments, he added.

Multiple wildlife seizures have been made at KLIA this year, and investigators said airport personnel could be involved in the illegal trade.

"We don't have proof, but I believe that they (trafficking syndicates) exploit our systems and procedures in these smuggling activities," the customs official said, adding that steps were being taken to strengthen screening and enforcement.

KLIA officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday's discoveries or the alleged potential involvement of airport staff.

Scales from pangolins, the world's most poached animal, are prized in some Asian countries for their use in traditional medicines. All eight pangolin species worldwide are threatened with extinction.

In May, Malaysia seized over 700kg of pangolin scales in the largest haul seen in the country. Wildlife experts say scales from the mammal could fetch up to RM1,500 per kg on the local black market.

Globally, up to 30,000 elephants are killed illegally every year to feed demand for expensive ivory products in places such as China and Hong Kong, according to WildAid, a wildlife non-governmental organisation.

China, the world's largest importer and end-user of ivory tusks, plans to close all its ivory carving factories and retail stores by the end of the year.

An Etihad spokesperson said the shipment from Lagos to Kuala Lumpur was "misdeclared as foodstuffs", and the airline is cooperating with the authorities in their investigation.

"Etihad Airways adheres to strict international practices for uplifting cargo or shipment and works closely with customs and immigration authorities and national security organisations across our network, using Regulated Agents that are approved by local authorities," said the spokesperson.
 
"Incorrect declaration of shipment is a breach of trust, and any passenger or cargo agents found to be illegally transporting live animals, or restricted animal-related products or endangered species, are immediately referred to the local authorities."

Additional report by Reuters