Zurich airport customs seized a record 262kg of ivory in eight different suitcases, during tourist checks at the beginning of July, the customs chief announced on 4 August.

The inspections were carried out on 6 July on two suitcases that had been checked in in the Tanzanian city of Dar Es Salaam, and which were travelling to Beijing. Policy requires checks to be made on luggage coming from the city, allowing customs officials to make the discovery.

"We started to search the passengers, and which passengers are travelling together with the same tickets, and then we found in the system that three Chinese people are travelling together and they have in total eight suitcases," Zurich airport customs office chief Heinz Widmer said.

He added that 172 separate pieces of ivory were discovered including tusks from baby elephants and sawn-up tusks from adult elephants which were barely concealed and only wrapped in paper. Some small ivory sculptures had been put in hand cream jars.

"We haven't had any such big seizure, we only have had very small seizures, usually a couple of kilos, or five kilos, ten kilos, but never such a big amount, so we think it has been tried to open a new route, which now hasn't worked," Mathias Lortscher of the federal office for food safety and veterinary affairs, said.

The seizure worth almost $413,000 (£264,000) is the biggest ever carried out by Zurich airport customs. Widmer said the pattern of hiding smuggled goods in several different suitcases hoping that a few pass by unnoticed is a technique associated with drug smuggling.