How Poachers Tried to Smuggle Tons of Elephant Ivory and Pangolin Scales out of Africa

Ugandan wildlife authorities uncover boxes of animal parts that would fetch millions of dollars on the black market.

A Kenya Wildlife Service officer numbers elephant ivory tusks destined for Malaysia that were seized in the port of Mombasa in Uganda. (Photo: Ivan Lieman/AFP/Getty Images)


Jan 26, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Three large boxes had already passed customs at Uganda’s Entebbe International Airport on their way to Amsterdam when Ugandan wildlife authorities decided to take a second look.

Good thing they did.

The crates were marked as communication equipment in need of repair, but inside, officials found more than 1,500 pounds of raw ivory and two tons of pangolin scales. On the black market, the ivory would fetch around $1.5 million and the pangolin scales, $1.2 million.

“One box had 76 tusks, another had 61 pieces of ivory mixed with pangolin scales, and the third box had purely pangolin scales,” Jossy Muhangi, a Uganda Wildlife Authority spokesman, told the AFP.

With the tusks cut into smaller pieces and the scales already removed from the armored anteaters, it was hard for officials to say how many animals had been killed. Uganda aviation police chief Ludovic Awita told AFP that three people were arrested in the bust, including an airport clerk, a customs officer, and the truck driver who delivered the cargo.

The find is the latest in an ongoing effort by authorities to stamp out the illegal wildlife trade, estimated to be worth as much as $10 billion a year.

Ivory from elephant tusks has long been sought after for use in jewelry and household trinkets.

China is the biggest buyer of illegal ivory, and the United States is the second-largest importer of the animal product, thanks to a loophole that allows the sale of “antique” ivory in some states.

In just three years, poachers killed more than 100,000 elephants to capitalize on the high price and demand for ivory tusks. If that trend continues, wild elephants could be extinct within 20 years.

Poaching is a newer threat for pangolins, whose natural defense mechanism is to curl up in a ball and let their armor-like scales protect them. That works against most predators but leaves them easy targets for poachers.

While pangolin meat shows up in fancy Vietnamese and Chinese dishes, poachers are after the animal’s scales, which are ground up and put into traditional Chinese medicines—similar to how rhino horn is used. Both animal fragments are made of keratin—the substance fingernails are made of—and don’t have much more medicinal use then a fingernail does, experts say.

In the past decade, more than 1 million pangolins have been killed by poachers, according to the Tikki Hywood Trust conservation group.