Soaring demand for illegal ivory has seen smuggling charges laid in New Zealand for the first time since global restrictions came into force more than 20 years ago.
A 57-year-old Auckland man appeared in court this week to face eight counts of illegally trading in an endangered species, after authorities seized items made of African elephant tusks from his home last year.
Another man, who was found with nearly 70 items in Napier in July, is likely to face similar charges in 2013.
Experts say the attempted imports are a sign that the growing demand for ivory in Asia has spilled over to New Zealand as "investors" begin to plan for the demise of the elephant species.
"People are banking on animals becoming rare and extinct," said campaigner Matt Collis from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). "And the rarer they become, the more profitable it is to own whatever part of it they find desirable."
The trade of ivory has been heavily restricted since 1989 under a "ban" imposed by member countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).
However, in the past five years, smuggling has surged dramatically. According to seizure figures, 2012 has been the worst year for global ivory smuggling since records began, with 34 tonnes of illegal material seized so far, up from 24 tonnes last year.
It is believed that at least 5000 and up to 50,000 elephants are being killed each year, with Africa in the midst of an epic slaughter, according to conservation groups.
A report by WWF International has warned that the ivory trade even threatened Africa's governments, as rebel groups such as the Lord's Resistance Army used the sale of tusks to fund their wars.
Poaching in some countries is said to be out of control, the Guardian newspaper wrote this week, citing figures from southern Sudan that show the elephant population, estimated at 130,000 in 1986, has crashed to 5000.
The demand for ivory is being largely driven from China.
WWF New Zealand spokeswoman Rosa Argent said this was due to growing wealth in the region.
"However, the fact that ivory items carved from the tusks of African elephants have been intercepted in New Zealand shows we are not immune to this global problem."
The man arrested in Auckland, Jiezhen Jiang, who is retired and lives in Mellons Bay, could have either been in the investor category or may have desired to on-sell the ivory to China.
Jiang was caught after Wildlife Enforcement Group investigators intercepted parcels posted from Portugal and England at the International Mail Centre in Auckland.
Six other pieces of ivory were seized from Jiang's home in October last year following the execution of a search warrant.
The items, which had to undergo forensic testing to prove they were from an African elephant before charges could be pressed, were a letter opener, a parasol handle, a statue of a man and boy, a face mask, a carved woman's head, a carved scene on a wooden base and two carved tusks.
The incident was similar to one in July this year, in which a man was caught in Napier with 69 pieces of ivory, after a tusk was intercepted en-route from France. Upon executing a search warrant, investigators found a collection including statues, carvings and whole pieces of tusk. Pending forensic results, he may also be charged.
On Wednesday at the Manukau District Court, Jiang was remanded at large without plea to appear again on February 13 next year.
- © Fairfax NZ News