Customs director general Datuk Seri Subromaniam Tholasy (centre) with Sabah Customs director Datuk Hamzah Sundang (4th from left) show the seized elephant tusks and pangolin scales during a press conference in Kota Kinabalu. Pic by MALAI ROSMAH TUAH.

KOTA KINABALU: A smuggling syndicate failed to deceive a Customs enforcement team which uncovered containers filled with elephant tusks and pangolin scales worth RM80.5 million at the Sepanggar port here.

The items, believed to have been sourced from Africa, were found concealed under groundnuts which filled the containers.

Customs director general Datuk Seri Subromaniam Tholasy said the containers were initially declared as containing groundnuts, and had passed through ports in neighbouring countries before arriving at the Sepanggar Port.

"However, on Aug 29, our diligent enforcement team seized the containers and carried out a thorough inspection.

"To our surprise, the team found 1,148 elephant tusks weighing 3,000kg and over 5,000kg of pangolin scales.

"These items, prohibited under the Customs Act, are believed to originate from Nigeria. Usually, such items are smuggled to China," he told reporters at a press conference here.

Subromaniam added that the market value for the tusks is estimated to be RM9.9 million, while the pangolin scales are valued at RM70.6 million.

Following the discovery, Subromaniam said the department detained a local man, aged 43, to facilitate investigations under Section 135 (1)(A) of the Customs Act 1967 for importing prohibited items.

He said the department will also conduct a probe under the Anti-Money Laundering, Anti-Terrorism Financing and Proceeds of Unlawful Activities Act.

"We have the authority to freeze accounts belonging to individuals and companies suspected of involvement in unlawful activities, and stern action will be taken, including against those involved in falsifying documents.

"Malaysia has been said to be a transit point (for smuggling), but these items are from Africa and had passed through two ports in neighbouring countries (before reaching here).

"It baffles me why authorities in (those countries) did not take action.

“As for Malaysia, we will not compromise on any attempt to smuggle prohibited items," said Subromaniam.

He refused to reveal which ports the containers had passed through before arriving here, saying only that one of the countries has one of the world’s busiest ports.

"The containers came from Nigeria, so they had to pass through the Straits of Malacca," he pointed out.

On July 28, the state Customs enforcement team seized over RM103 million worth of scales sourced from 16,000 pangolins.

The scales, packed in 226 gunny sacks, were discovered inside two containers that were to be shipped to China via the Sepanggar Port.

The state Customs Department estimated that the scales were worth US$3,000 (RM12,886) per kilogram on the black market.

On Aug 29, state Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun announced that the Sabah Wildlife Department is looking at upgrading the status of pangolins to “a completely protected species.”

Masidi had ordered the Department, which falls under his Ministry, to undertake the matter as soon as possible.

It was also reported that the Sabah Wildlife Department is in the midst of preparing a paper on upgrading the status of the pangolin from Schedule 2 to Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997.