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Malaysia seizes $18 million worth of elephant tusks, pangolin scales

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Malaysian customs officers seized some $18 million worth of illegal wildlife parts including elephant tusks and pangolin scales, officials announced. Photo by Fazry Ismail/EPA-EFE
Malaysian customs officers seized some $18 million worth of illegal wildlife parts including elephant tusks and pangolin scales, officials announced. Photo by Fazry Ismail/EPA-EFE

July 19 (UPI) -- Malaysian authorities seized $18 million worth of elephant tusks, pangolin scales, rhino horns, tiger fangs and other animal parts in the country's largest haul ever of illegally trafficked wildlife, its customs department announced.

Officials discovered the contraband, including over 13,000 pounds of elephant ivory, on a ship coming from an unspecified African country on July 10, customs Director-General Zazuli Johan said Monday, according to state news agency Bernama.

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The wildlife parts were hidden in a container carrying timber and were intended to be transferred to another ship, Zazuli said.

"But we received information on the smuggling and intercepted the container," he said.

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The seizure was made at the country's busy Port Klang, located on the Malacca Strait.

In addition to ivory, other items recovered included 64 pounds of rhino horn, 220 pounds of pangolin scales and more than 660 pounds of skulls and other parts. Malaysia was not the final destination for the trafficked goods, Zazuli said, although he did not specify where they were headed.

Malaysia has long been identified as a key transit country in the illegal wildlife trade for shipments bound for other Asian countries, particularly China.

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A 2017 U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime report concluded that Malaysia "is a major transit point used by international organized crime networks to move wildlife products such as ivory, rhino horn, testudines and pangolins from source countries to destination countries such as China, Vietnam and Thailand."

Conservationists praised Malaysian customs agents for the seizure, but cautioned that the attempted trafficking underscores the country's continuing role as a transit hub for the illegal trade.

"This medley of threatened species in a single consignment is concerning," Kanitha Krishnasamy, Southeast Asia director for conservation group Traffic, said in a statement. "It certainly verifies the suspicion that criminals continue to use Malaysian ports to move contraband wildlife."

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The pangolin, an anteater-like mammal covered in scales, has been called the most trafficked animal in the world by some experts, with more than one million estimated to have been illegally traded to countries such as China and Vietnam between 2000 and 2013.

The animals are poached for their meat and their scales, which are used in Chinese traditional medicine.

International trade of the endangered species has been banned since 2017, and in 2020 China removed pangolin scales from its list of approved ingredients for medicine.

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Port Klang has been the site of other major busts in recent years, including almost 13,600 pounds of pangolin scales in 2020.

"This case also goes to show that criminals are bold enough to think they can get away with repeated attempts," Traffic's Krishnasamy said. "Malaysia must show that it can make arrests and successful convictions of wildlife criminals."

There have been no arrests yet over the seizure, Malaysian officials said. Investigations into the importer and shipping agent are ongoing.

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