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POACHERS are shipping ivory disguised as chocolate bars to the Far East.

This is one of the latest ways of smuggling wildlife products from South Africa to countries such as China and Taiwan.

Tom Milliken, leader of the global elephant and rhino programme for Traffic, an international organisation that monitors illegal trading in wildlife, said yesterday South Africa was a key transit point on the ivory smuggling route.

On Friday a 58-year-old Chinese woman was arrested at OR Tambo International Airport carrying 40kg of ivory wrapped in tin foil, brown paper and clothes.

She was in transit from Mozambique to Hong Kong.

•Seven people were arrested in a “planned operation” at Hong Kong International Airport yesterday. About 160kg of tusks and worked ivory was found in the check-in baggage of 14 passengers.

According to Hong Kong authorities, the smugglers were on flights from Johannesburg and Dubai. The four men and three women appeared in court on Friday and yesterday.

One of them was sentenced to four months in prison. The rest were fined between 30000 and 80000 (R310000 to R828000) each.

The Chinese woman arrested in Johannesburg is expected to appear in the Kempton Park Magistrate’s Court today.

Milliken said there was evidence that most of the ivory poached in the Caprivi Strip in Namibia and elsewhere in Southern Africa was being shipped through South Africa.

“Not so long ago a guy was caught in Cape Town with a massive ivory cache, and there have been several [shipping containers] containing ivory leaving Cape Town,” Milliken said.

“It seems the syndicates who are smuggling abalone to Hong Kong and China are diversifying into ivory.”

Milliken said the Kruger National Park and Etosha Game Reserve in Namibia were the only two of 50 sites where no elephant had been illegally killed.

South Africa, he said, was emerging as a smuggling route because it had better airline infrastructure — and direct flights to Asia — than its neighbours.

Milliken said that on two occasions, ivory chopped into bitesized chunks had been intercepted. It had been coated in chocolate and packaged as chocolate.

In Macau, customs officials seized 583 elephant tusks weighing 34kg and with a market value of about R750 000 in July.

In September and December last year, shipments of 24 and 67 ivory chunks were wrapped in Kit-Kat chocolate wrappers and mailed to Taiwan.