China seizes more than 1,700 pounds of ivory in smuggling bust

Protesters take part in a march in Johannesburg, South Africa, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, against the hunting of lions, rhinos and elephants. The demonstrations were part of what organizers called a "global march" for rhinos and elephants, whose populations have been severely reduced by criminal networks that sell rhino horn and elephant ivory for high prices, particularly in parts of Asia. The loosely knit coalition of conservationists also planned events in the United States this weekend. (AP Photo/Shiraaz Mohammed)

BEIJING (AP) — Authorities announced Monday the arrests of 16 suspected members of a smuggling ring and the seizure of hundreds of pounds of ivory along with rhino horns and bear paws.

Police in Beijing said that as a result of a crackdown from May to August on the illegal trade and transport of wildlife products, officers netted 1,770 pounds of ivory, 24 pounds of rhino horns and 35 bear paws in a haul worth 24 million yuan ($3.8 million).

China is the world’s largest market for illegal ivory, which has been thriving under the cover of legal ivory sales. Amid criticism that demand for ivory among its rising middle class threatens African elephants, China is taking steps to fight trafficking and end ivory sales.

In February, China imposed a one-year ban on ivory imports. In September, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to halt commercial ivory sales in China when he was visiting the United States.

Beijing police said in a statement that the ivory was smuggled illegally from Japan to mainland China via Hong Kong. The 16 suspects were arrested by forest police, which investigate crimes involving wildlife, in Beijing, Hebei, Guangdong and Shandong, among other places.

TRAFFIC, a British-based anti-wildlife trafficking group, praised the operation as a “clear demonstration of the Chinese government’s commitment to crack down on illegal wildlife trade.” TRAFFIC said in a statement that it was possible that all the wildlife products in the case originated in Japan, where people have been selling legally owned ivory and rhino horns from the 1980s and earlier as their popularity has plummeted.

Monday’s announcement came after authorities in Tanzania brought charges last week against Yang Feng Clan, 66, a Chinese woman accused of smuggling 1.9 tons of ivory between Jan. 1, 2000, and May 22, 2014.

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