MAINZ, Germany — Customs officials seized nearly 600 pounds of smuggled ivory with an estimated black-market value of around $400,000, Swiss authorities said Tuesday.
Three Chinese nationals — en route from Tanzania to China — were arrested after officials at Zurich airport found the ivory cache stashed in eight suitcases last month.
"This is by far the largest ivory find in Swiss history,” Zurich-based customs official Miroslaw Ritschard told NBC News.
He said Tuesday that lion claws and fangs also were discovered during what started out as a "routine screening" at Zurich Airport on July 6. Officials believe that between 40 and 50 elephants — including several young animals — were killed for the 578 pounds of ivory.
Ritschard credited Zurich airport's "special risk profiling" for the discovery, noting that the three smugglers were picked up while in transit from Tanzanian “ivory hot spot,” Dar es Salaam.
The three alleged smugglers were sent home to China —where it is unclear if and when they will face charges.
If convicted of smuggling offenses in Switzerland, they could have faced up to three years in prison and fines of more than $1 million. However, Swiss Customs official Heinz Widmer told NBC News that now charges could be handed down by Chinese authorities.
“We believe that the men are simple couriers,” he added, noting that customs officials had confiscated whatever cash the men had on them before releasing them from custody.
Switzerland's head of wildlife conservation Mattias Lorscher criticized smuggling laws following the announcement, saying "the penalties are far to low and not dissuasive enough."
Tania McCrea-Steele, Campaigns and Enforcement Manager at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, called on European countries to "to lead by example and when there is a case of illegal ivory trafficking."
"Penalties should reflect the seriousness of the offence while also being strong enough to deter others," she said.