For more than two months, two 20-foot container vans sat idly at the port of Manila. Official documents indicated that blow molding machines and plastic scraps were inside the shipments. But when Philippine Customs authorities inspected them early this week, what they found were not scraps but valuables — elephant tusks estimated to be worth over $2 million.
(Los Angeles Zoo)
They came in two shipments, one arriving on March 1 and the other only four days after. The tusks traveled all the way from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, where elephants are endangered. Some 20,000 elephants are killed for their tusks every year worldwide.
In a press briefing Tuesday, Customs Commissioner Napoleon Morales and Environment Secretary Lito Atienza condemned illegal wildlife trade and vowed to prosecute those involved, including the consignee, 210 Enterprises, and the registered broker, Marilyn Pacheco, both based in Manila.
"I am ordering their immediate suspension. Effective today, they are no longer eligible to transact with the Bureau of Customs," said Morales.
Atienza said that effective apprehension, prosecution and punishment are the best means to end this kind of environmental abuse.
"This will serve as an example that this type of contraband won't be allowed to enter the Philippines nor will the Philippines be a transit point," added Atienza.
It is not yet clear whether Manila was the final destination of the illegal shipments, but ivory, a precious material that constitutes the bulk of tusks, is in fact used in the Philippines, especially for images of saints as those made of ivory are more durable.
Atienza, however, did not discount the possibility that the tusks could have been on its way to another country.
"It is possible that they will not even be used here, but eventually will end up in another country," said Atienza. "It is our duty, as a signatory to international treaties, to stop the movement of this type of material."
But there is concern that even in the hands of the Philippine government, the elephant tusks may be at risk of getting into the wrong hands. In 2007, a shipment of ivory tusks was also found at the port of Manila. Though it was worth significantly less — at around $2000 — some people took interest and stole them. Atienza said that they would ensure that this does not happen this time.
"We will definitely take good care of it, that's one thing for sure; and we will not trade it because it's illegal to trade it," he said.
Atienza also said that he would tap environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International to help. He said that that "more people getting to know about it will secure its continued presence."