Federal agents seize 260 pounds of ivory at airport

The Associated Press
Friday May 04, 2001

LOS ANGELES — Dining-room chairs and statues concealed more than 200 pounds of ivory in the nation’s biggest seizure of elephant tusks since laws banning their import took effect. 

Federal officials displayed some of the ivory Thursday, a day after two Los Angeles men were indicted on charges of smuggling an endangered species product. The total seizure of nearly 260 pounds has an estimated value of $80,000 to $375,000. 

The seizure shows that 12 years after ivory was all but banned in the United States, a lingering appetite for it still motivates poachers and threatens dwindling elephant herds, said Marie E. Palladini, senior special agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

“We must not allow this irreplaceable commodity to disappear,” Palladini said. 

Most of the seized ivory came from two air cargo shipments flown from Nigeria to Los Angeles International Airport. About 40 pounds were taken from the van of one of the arrested men. 

It wasn’t clear how many African elephants would have had to have been killed for so much ivory, but Craig M. Ziegler, resident in charge for the U.S. Customs Service at the airport, said the 38 whole tusks recovered represent roughly one-fourth of the seizure. 

“Some of (the tusks) were very small, 6 to 8 inches long – it was kind of sad,” Ziegler said, adding that others were as long as 3 feet. 

The seizures may be the nation’s biggest ivory bust since its importation became illegal in 1989, Ziegler said. Now people can legally import ivory only if they hunted the elephant legally or if the ivory can be proven to be more than a century old. 

Customs and Fish and Wildlife inspectors discovered the ivory April 9 and 11, when routine X-ray inspections uncovered ring-shaped objects in shipments at the Lufthansa Cargo facility. 

The first shipment was primarily wooden chairs covered with beaded fabric decorated with images of masks, camels and lions.  

They were stuffed with complete tusks and tusk cross-sections – most roughly the size of a roll of duct tape. One of the chairs had a tusk poking out of the top. 

Most of the ivory in the second shipment was stacked up in three tall, gaudy statues. Additional rings of ivory were wrapped in bead-covered fabric. 

Inspectors repacked the shipments, both of which were picked up and taken to a Hollywood storage facility April 17. Authorities said the chair shipment, with more than 180 pounds of ivory inside, was picked up by Ebrima Marigo, 36, and the statue shipment, with about 30 pounds of ivory, was picked up by Bahoreh Kabba, 38. 

Marigo was arrested April 17 at the storage facility, and Kabba was arrested the next day after getting out of a van that held yet more ivory. 

Marigo, who claims Liberian citizenship, was charged with one count of smuggling, and Kabba, who claims Gambian citizenship, was charged with two. If convicted, Margio could face five years in federal prison, and Kabba could face 10, Ziegler said. 

Customs and Fish and Wildlife officials are continuing their investigation, and more arrests are possible, he said. 

Ivory smuggling has been relatively rare in the United States, Ziegler said, adding that elephant tusks are more commonly sought in Japan, Hong Kong and China. 

Palladini said Los Angeles is the nation’s most common entry point for smuggled wildlife. Smugglers traffic in tropical fish, birds, coral, and the skins of crocodiles and caimans, among other illegal items, she said. 

“It’s a very large business — people want what they can’t have,” Palladini said.