Malaysia Authorities Seize Elephant Tusks, Rhino Horns Worth $18 Million

Criminals had hidden the contraband animal parts in a container full of sawn timber

Seized contraband
Malaysian customs officials seized thousands of pounds of elephant tusks, pangolin scales, rhino horns and other animal parts in July. Courtesy of Royal Malaysian Customs Department

While inspecting containers full of sawn timber arriving on a ship from Africa earlier this month, Malaysian officials discovered 80 million ringgit ($18 million) worth of illegal elephant tusks, rhino horns and other animal parts.

All told, they seized 13,227 pounds of elephant tusks, 220 pounds of pangolin scales, 55 pounds of rhino horns and 661 pounds of animal skulls, bones and horns on July 10, per a statement from the country’s customs department.

Customs officials are continuing to investigate the importer and the shipping agent, per the Associated Press (AP).

Zazuli Johan, Malaysia’s customs director, said at a news conference held at the country's main port, Port Klang, that the seizure marked the government’s largest to date, as reported by Al Jazeera.

Officials said they had been surveilling the ship as it made its way from Africa to Abu Dhabi to Pasir Gudang, a port in southern Malaysia, before intercepting it in Port Klang. The contraband’s final destination is unclear, but traditional Chinese medicine practitioners use pangolin scales, ivory tusks and rhino horns for their perceived therapeutic benefits.

Malaysian officials
Malaysian officials show the $18 million worth of contraband animal parts they seized. Courtesy of Royal Malaysian Customs Department

Officials discovered the tusks, scales and bones hidden inside a container full of timber, which is often used by traffickers to conceal illegal animal parts, per the conservation organization TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.

“This medley of threatened species in a single consignment is concerning,” Kanitha Krishnasamy, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia’s director, says in a statement. “It certainly verifies the suspicion that criminals continue to use Malaysian ports to move contraband wildlife.”

In 2016, representatives from 183 countries signed an agreement banning the international trade of pangolins, the small, scale-covered mammals that live in Africa and Asia. There are eight species of pangolin that range from “vulnerable” to “critically endangered,” per the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), because they’ve been hunted for their meat, scales and skin. Pangolins are believed to be the most trafficked mammal in the world, per the WWF.

In 2020, China removed pangolin scales from its official list of ingredients approved for use in traditional medicine. However, even after this move, pharmaceutical companies and online platforms continued to advertise and sell pangolin products.

The international trade of ivory—such as that found in elephant tusks and rhino horns—has been banned since 1989, yet profiteers continue to poach these and other animals for their lucrative ivory parts. Hunting is so ubiquitous in some parts of the world that elephants are now evolving not to have tusks. Elephant tusks are actually teeth, which the massive animals use for an array of purposes, ranging from defending themselves to stripping bark from trees for food.