London Evening Standard/London

Heathrow airport is at the centre of a booming trade in illegal ivory, with most of it being carried by big-name courier companies.

Border officials are making record seizures, the vast majority taken from newly slaughtered African elephants.

Often disguised as African handicrafts, the contraband is being smuggled in small packages that transit Heathrow on their way to China.

The trade is being driven by the economic boom in China and the Far East, where ivory is seen as a symbol of status and wealth.

Chinese workers employed in Africa are buying up ivory to send home, making huge profits.

The illegal goods are sent via the big courier firms, who route packages via Heathrow and other European hub airports unaware of their contents.

Last year a specialist UK Border Force team made 50 seizures of ivory weighing 80.7kg at British airports — compared with just 3.3kg in 2010. Most was at Heathrow. The number of seizures is thought to be a fraction of the amount being smuggled.

Grant Miller, senior officer on the team, said the packages were all falsely described as “handicrafts” and always addressed to Chinese individuals, most of them in the big cities of Hong Kong and Guangzhou.

Most of the ivory had been transformed into intricately carved jewellery and decorations such as bangles, beads, medallions, and name blocks. They were often wrapped in tinfoil in a misguided attempt to hide them from scanners.

Some had been made to look like electrical circuits with wires attached, while one piece from a baby elephant was painted black to make it appear like wood.

The UK Border Force team is training customs officers in Africa and Hong Kong to detect the contraband.

Miller said the trade was driven by greed, and the new-found wealth of the middle classes in countries such as China and Vietnam.

“Workers in Africa are posting smaller consignments in courier packages that get routed through London,” he said. “These are Chinese workers taking opportunity to make a fast buck by sending ivory home. People see rhino horn and ivory as a status symbol.

“If you look at the poaching levels there is no way you can see this getting better, the figures are going through the roof. We are at a critical stage in terms of environmental issues, if we do not take this seriously we will lose (threatened species).

“What is positive is people like Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton and now the UK are sitting up and saying enough is enough.”

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