Deadly ivory trade trends in the Middle East

The map above shows possible trade routes from North East Africa through the Middle East into China.Three interesting ivory confiscation incidents took place in the Middle East in the last three months.

These confiscations may indicate, changes in the ivory trade trends within the region.

Riyadh Airport – Saudi Arabia: (the purple line in the route graphic above)

Saudi Arabia customs seized nearly 500 Kg of ivory at Riyadh in October of 2014.In mid-October, 2014, Customs officials at Riyadh Airport seized 588 pieces of elephant ivory (490 Kg) imported from Ethiopia on its way to the Far East. The ivory was hidden in 16 bags.

RELATED: Saudi’s half-ton illegal ivory seizure chokes another smuggling route

As we mentioned in one of our previous blogs, the seizure may indicate a change in the trade trend to utilize this unknown smuggling route.

Previously, smugglers tried to use Dubai as a transit or transshipment point to send ivory shipments to the Far East. But due to several confiscations in Dubai including two big confiscations at Dubai port in 2012 and 1013, we believe that the smugglers may decide to look for another transit point like Riyadh Airport.

Using passenger’s bags may be a new way for concealment of the raw ivory instead of using usual wooden boxes as has been observed in previous large confiscation cases.

Ivory seized at the Safaga seaport.Safaga seaport – Egypt:  (the dark blue line in the route graphic above)

In late October, , Customs officers at Safaga seaport (on the Red Sea) seized 300 Kg of raw elephant ivory discovered in a truck from Kuwait traveling through Saudi Arabia.

This is the strangest smuggling route that we saw in the Middle East. The shipment mainly originated from East Africa and was sent to Kuwait were it was taken by truck through Saudi Arabia to Egypt, passing the red sea from Duba seaport (Saudi Arabia) finally arriving at Safaga seaport (Egypt).

An investigation needs to be conducted to look for who and what is behind this incredibly circuitous transit path.

Safaga seaport – Egypt:  (the light blue line in the route graphic above)

In November, 2014, just weeks later, Customs officers at Safaga seaport seized another shipment of ivory (about 200 Kg) imported from Saudi Arabia (again).

This time the shipment consisted of different shapes of raw and worked ivory. Part of the raw ivory was painted with black stain to look like coal or dark wood. A technique we had not see before in the Middle East (but existed in other regions).

Good news, as Safaga seaport customs is about to install new X-ray machines for checking imported goods.

Previously, the route of ivory trafficking to Egypt originated from Sudan through the land borders between the two countries, but what is clear now, is that there is a change in the smuggling route.

In the two Safaga seaport confiscations the smugglers tried to pass the ivory through Saudi Arabia before sending it to Egypt.

It seems the smuggler wanted to benefit from using Safaga seaport which is an unexpected entry point for ivory (and so the customs officers there may not be familiar with ivory) and they benefited also from using Saudi Arabia as exporter (which is unexpected as well).

This change in tactic may be due to the recent increase in strict importation measures adopted by the Egyptian border security on the land borders with Sudan.

It is increasingly important that ivory confiscations of more than 100 Kg be reported to the exporting countries as soon as possible to allow proper time for enforcement authorities to link ivory trafficking efforts to these deadly trends for elephants.   


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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
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Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
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Dr. Elsayed Ahmed Mohamed, Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
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