Conservationists say a recent surge in elephant poaching is putting the world's biggest land mammal on the brink of extinction. On Friday, advocates held marches in more than a dozen cities across the globe — from Australia to Thailand to Tanzania — hoping to put an end to the practice of slaughtering elephants so their tusks can be used for the illegal ivory trade.
Wildlife activists say China's growing presence in Africa has led to a huge surge in the poaching of elephants for their tusks, most of which are believed to be smuggled into China and Thailand to make ivory ornaments.
On Thursday, customs agents in Hong Kong seized nearly 1,700 pounds of illegal ivory with a street value of about $1.5 million, according to officials, who said they had found a total of 189 elephant tusks in anti-smuggling operations carried out in late September. No arrests have been made, and authorities say they continue to look for the smugglers.
The ivory was wrapped in linen and nylon bags and hidden in large sacks of soybeans in containers on three separate ships, said Vincent Wong, head of Hong Kong's Ports and Maritime Command.
"All of these goods — they do not originate from Hong Kong, they originate from Africa or African countries. And they transshipped through another country. In this case it's Malaysia," said Wong at a news conference Thursday.
But Hong Kong is a major transit point for ivory before it heads to mainland China and Thailand, Al Jazeera's Craig Leeson reported.
On Friday, several dozen marchers gathered outside the China Arts and Crafts shop in Hong Kong. Sharon Kwok, executive director of the Aquameridian Conservation and Education Foundation, and other demonstrators tried to hand out leaflets inside the shop but were turned away by staff.
"They're the only place in Hong Kong that's authorized to buy and sell legalized elephant ivory," Kwok told Reuters. "What we're trying to do is basically to tell people to stop buying elephant ivory.
"We're trying to ... educate the mainland buyers that might buy elephant ivory, try to let them know that elephant ivory is something derived from a lot of terror, a lot of bloodshed, a lot of pain," she said.
In August, Hong Kong officials seized illegal ivory, rhino horns and leopard skins worth $5.3 million in a shipment that came from Nigeria. In late July, they found more than two tons of tusks worth $2.25 million in a container from Togo. In January, a shipment of ivory from Kenya worth $1.4 million was confiscated.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an agreement reached in 1973 among world governments, bans the international trade in ivory.
However, the World Wildlife Fund says, "there are still some thriving but unregulated domestic ivory markets in a number of countries, which fuel an illegal international trade," including some in Asia and Africa.
Last month, wildlife officials in western Zimbabwe said at least 91 elephants were poisoned with cyanide by poachers, who hack off the tusks for the lucrative illegal ivory market at Hwange National Park.
Al Jazeera and wire services