High-tech URA scanner exposes ivory, pangolin scales disguised as wood

Two Vietnamese nationals have been taken into custody. The trucks are believed to have picked the consignment from DR Congo and that the items were gathered from across the region as thousands of elephants and pangolins were killed to get the items

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SMUGGLING | Uganda Revenue Authority has intercepted three containers carrying ivory and pangolin scales in logs of wood purportedly for export to South-East Asia.

The three trucks carrying the items were intercepted after they had crossed the Nimule-Sudan boarder. Two Vietnamese nationals were arrested in the smuggling that was busted with the help of a high-tech mobile non-intrusive cargo inspection scanner that exposed an extremely meticulous concealment.

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“The culprits poured molten wax into hollow plunks of wood and dipped hundreds of ivory and pangolin scales into the wax. They then covered the hollow plunks with well shaped pieces of wood (lids) and used saw dust to cover lines where lids joined the hollow plunks,” URA commissioner for customs Dickson Kateshumbwa told reporters.

Customs, working with anti-smuggling police, found hundreds of ivory pieces and thousands of pangolin scales disguised as timber.

Kateshumbwa said at least 750 pieces of ivory and thousands of pangolin scales had been verified bu that the exercise was still going on, meaning there were probably more of items.

‘For 750 pieces of ivory to be amassed, 325 elephants have to lose their lives. Thousands of Pangolins too. This is the cost of poaching on Africa’s wild life,” he said.

Ivory and pangolin scales are listed among prohibited trade items.

Elephants are one of the most poached mammals the world over for their tusks but pangolins are coveted even more for their scales. Poaching rackets are existent allover Africa.

According to The Conversation, a wildlife portal, the population of African elephants is estimated to have declined by 111,000 over the past ten years. East Africa has experienced an almost 50% reduction in its elephant population.

In China, where most pangolin scales end up, the animal itself is eaten, but a greater danger arises from the belief that the scales have medicinal value. Dried scales are roasted, ashed, cooked in oil, butter, vinegar, or roasted with earth or oyster-shells, to cure a variety of ills.

Pangolins in Uganda are most found in northern Uganda. Uganda Wildlife Authority has over the years impounded several bags of the scales.

As of 2015, pangolin scales were covered under some health insurance plans in Vietnam and China were they are most in demand. The scales can cost more than $3,000 (about Shs10 million) per kilogramme the black market.

Between two and three pangolins have to be killed to harvest a kilogramme of scales, meaning that thousands of the living pinecone had to be killed for generate the amount of scales the Vietnamese smugglers had in their possesion.

The impounded trucks entered Ugandan through South Sudan but officials say the origin destination was DR Congo and believe the smugglers had spent years gathering their loot from across regional countries before pulling off the meticulous concealment.

Uganda remains one of the most favoured transit sites for smugglers dealing in wildlife species and trophies, with an estimated 20 metric tonnes of ivory believed to have found their way to Asia through Uganda between 2009 and 2014.

Kateshumbwa said the two suspects will be charged with dealing in endangered species, smuggling and related offences.

“Trading in endangered species prohibited under the law. We believe that this is a very massive discovery and we intend to investigate the whole chain and get the people behind it,” he said.

URA customs official explains how the ivory and pangolin scales were concealed in logs of wood | COURTESY

How they were busted

From a collection centre suspected to be in the jungles of DR Congo, the racket packed the ivory and scales into well-joined logs of wood. The truck left DR Congo and travelled through South Sudan, arriving in Uganda via Nimule border.

With logs of timber as the declared consignment, the smugglers would have got away as human inspection wouldn’t detect the meticulous concealment. But their 40 days was up and at the mercy of URA’s mobile non-intrusive inspection scanner.

“The high-tech gadget confirmed something unusual tucked away in each of the three 20-feet containers,” Kateshumbwa  said.

Basing on intel gathered about suspicious cargo in the containers, the customs team covertly tailed the three trucks as they snaked their way across Uganda. The team then moved in on the trucks at an inspection centre to verify the suspicions.

Customs officials deployed hammers to unbox the “logs of wood,” revealing bricks of wax. This confirmed that there were illegal items concealed, so the wax was molten to extract the ivory and scales.

URA said it was working with relevant agencies at Uganda Wildlife Authority and Police to get to the bottom of the smuggling racket and to ensure that the perpetrators face the full force of the law.

The two suspects as well as the impounded trucks have been taken to URA headquarters pending further investigations.

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