Puny fines for ivory smugglers deter no one

Since the ivory was sawn into 172 pieces to fit into the luggage shows savvy smuggling tactics.


I am outraged by the report emerging in the media that Swiss authorities, after making the largest seizure of ivory in Zurich, let the Chinese smugglers leave the country with a puny fine.

During a routine inspection on July 6, customs officials at Zurich airport seized 262 kg of ivory hidden in eight suitcases from three Chinese men on route to Beijing, China from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

The way the ivory were hidden to evade detection—sawn into 172 pieces to fit into the luggage—shows these men are not ordinary consumers who are ignorant about the killing of elephants to supply the ivory trade.

They are smugglers.

Just like poachers, they are criminals with elephant blood on their hands.

However, instead of charging them for smuggling offenses, a crime if convicted in Switzerland carries up to three years prison sentence and fines of US$1 million, the Swiss authorities sent the smuggler back home with a puny fine of “whatever cash they had on them”.  

What kind of example is Switzerland setting for the rest of the world?

Poaching of elephants and trafficking of ivory to supply the trade is pushing this species towards extinction.

However, too often, we think only wildlife poaching is a crime.

Outraged by the criminal act of killing Cecil the lion, even the UN General Assembly voted to adopt a resolution to fight wildlife poaching.

But remember, criminal acts permeate the entire illegal wildlife trade chain from poaching to trafficking to consumption.

Wildlife crimes do not just happen in Africa where elephants are illegally killed.

Wildlife crimes happen where ivory is transported to markets via Europe. Wildlife crimes happen where consumers buy blood-stained ivory in Asia.

When Switzerland, which hosts CITES, the UN-Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora, let wildlife smugglers off the hook so easily, how can we expect governments in Africa and Asia to take wildlife crime seriously?

My colleague Tania McCrea-Steele, IFAW’s Campaigns and Enforcement Manager in the UK, said it very well: “It is critically important for European countries to lead by example and when there is a case of illegal ivory trafficking in Europe the penalties should reflect the seriousness of the offence while also being strong enough to deter others.”

Swiss Customs Authority put the value of the seized ivory at $400,000 Swiss Francs ($408,000 USD).

While IFAW does not speculate the black market value of contraband as a matter of principle, I have to wonder though.

What would the Swiss authorities have done if the smugglers they caught were trafficking nearly half a million dollars’ worth of drugs?


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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
President and Chief Executive Officer
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Elsayed Ahmed Mohamed, Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
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Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
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Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
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Pauline Verheij, Program Manager, Wildlife Crime
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Rikkert Reijnen, Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Country Representative, Germany
Country Representative, Germany
Staci McLennan, Director, EU Office
Director, EU Office
Tania McCrea-Steele, Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy