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Illegal ivory trading is increasing in New Zealand, a senior investigator says.
Jiezhen Jiang has become the first person to be convicted here for trading in ivory after being charged under the Trade in Endangered Species Act.
The 58-year-old was fined $12,000 when he appeared for sentence at the Manukau District Court today (Wed) after pleading guilty to eight charges of trading in endangered species without a permit.
The charges - brought by the Department of Conservation - carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and $100,000 fine.
Jiang was caught after Customs officers intercepted two parcels containing ivory at the international mail centre. They had been posted from Portugal and England.
Customs raided Jiang's Mellons Bay property in October 2011 and found six other items made from the tusks of endangered African elephants.
Between May 2010 and September 2011 Jiang was a prolific online trader, and bought 299 items including objects made of silver, bone china and ivory, worth around $180,000.
Jiang said he had sold two ivory items to people in China through a website because they "were not of artistic value".
During an interview with authorities, Jiang admitted bidding on and buying ivory items, buying others on Trade Me and sending them back to China.
Conservation Department investigator Dylan Swain said there is an increase in wildlife products on the internet, including ivory.
He said because trading on the internet is so easy, people are often not aware of the regulations.
Overseas travellers are also being caught out.
"People are coming in with a large number of souvenir items - elephant hide handbags or ivory earrings - without being aware of the law."
That usually attracts a warning from authorities but Jiang's case was different because it had a commercial flavour about it.
The court heard how one of Jiang's ivory pieces - a carved face mask - had been bought for $105. Jiang had advertised it for sale on a Chinese website for $2300.
"There was a clear knowledge that these things were headed for extinction," Mr Swain said.
Jiang's lawyer Richard Zhao asked the court to discharge his client without conviction which would have allowed Zhao to keep his previously clean criminal record.
He said his client's elderly mother lived in Australia and a conviction would make it harder for him to get a visa. The conviction would also make it more difficult for him to get New Zealand citizenship.
But Judge Jonathan Moses said while Jiang had bought the pieces for their artistic value, he had also bought them as investments.
At one point Jiang told the authorities that he knew elephants were being killed for their ivory, but thought the pieces would be good investments as they would increase in value.
Judge Moses said he had also taken into account a letter from an organisation known as Traffic, which monitors trading in wildlife.
In his letter, the head of Traffic's elephant and rhino programme - Tom Milliken - said the African elephant population had been halved in the decade to 1999 and has been in steady decline since then because of illegal killing.
"To a conservationist, the idea that the defendant was aware that elephants were being killed for their ivory and, therefore, thought that ivory would be a good investment as it would increase in value is an attitude that no endangered species can survive."
Judge Moses said he had spent some years living in Tanzania and had personally seen the impact of poaching on tourism. It also brought other crime.
"I need to make it clear that New Zealand takes its obligations under this act extremely seriously."
Importing ivory into New Zealand is prohibited without a permit after New Zealand became one of the 175 countries to ratify the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.
As well as elephants, the convention covers 5000 animal species and 29,000 plants.
In a separate case, authorities raided a Napier home in July and seized 69 items believed to be made from ivory, including statues, carvings and pieces of tusk. Charges have not yet been laid.
- By Edward Gay, APNZ court reporter