Seized snakes escape mainland diners but are still doomed

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2007, 12:00am

Police boarded a boat off Tuen Mun yesterday and seized 320 endangered snakes, apparently bound for dining tables on the mainland.

But the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said they would have to be destroyed.

'The common rat snakes will be humanely destroyed, as there is a large amount and it is difficult to find a place to keep the snakes and prevent them from further suffering,' the department said.

The seizure was made after marine police spotted a speedboat and a 10-metre wooden boat at the northwest of Lung Kwu Chau near the sea boundary at about 2.30am. Police said they had seen goods being loaded from the speedboat to the wooden boat.

The boats sped away as police pursuit crafts approached. After a three-minute chase, the wooden boat was intercepted before crossing the sea boundary. But the speedboat managed to escape towards the mainland.

Two mainland men, aged between 20 and 40, were arrested on board. Inside the cargo hold were 20 boxes of common rat snakes and three boxes of American snapping turtles.

The turtles are not classed as an endangered species, but no export documents were produced.

The Marine West divisional commander, Francis Chan Chun, said the haul's estimated value was about HK$100,000 and it was the biggest seizure of live snakes in the past two years.

'Our investigation indicated that the consignment was destined for Panyu , Guangdong,' Mr Chan said. Officers are investigating whether the creatures, mostly found in Southeast Asian countries, were legally imported.

Police were told that the snakes and turtles were for eating.

'There is a demand for such animals on the mainland, especially in the winter, because people believe eating them is good for health,' Mr Chan said.

He said customs officers would follow up the case.

The common rat snake is classified as an endangered species, but trading them is allowed with permits issued by related authorities.

A spokeswoman for the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said they were looking for a place to keep the six turtles.

Clarus Chu Ping-shing, WWF's senior marine conservation officer, said euthanasia should be the last resort and the department should think twice before destroying such a large number of an endangered species.

But the health of the seized animals needed to be taken into consideration, he said.

'AFCD should first contact Kadoorie Farm and ask them to take care of the animals. Overseas zoos and organisations may also be interested in collecting some of the species,' Mr Chu said. 'However, it will be too difficult [to save them] if they are already in bad shape.'