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Hong Kong courts

Hong Kong wildlife campaigner demands rhino horn smuggler be jailed for years, not months to deter the criminals ‘raping and pillaging’ species into extinction

  • Chinese carpenter was caught carrying 3.1kg of rhino horn with estimated market value of up to US$217,000
  • He pleads guilty in first case since Hong Kong introduced tougher penalties
PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 October, 2018, 5:17pm
UPDATED : Friday, 19 October, 2018, 10:24pm

A wildlife campaigner has demanded a smuggler caught bringing 3.1kg of rhino horn into Hong Kong be jailed for “years, not months” to deter criminal gangs “raping and pillaging” the species into extinction.

On Friday, a mainland Chinese carpenter admitted bringing the rhino horn into the city, in the first wildlife trafficking case heard at District Court since the introduction of tougher penalties for the offence.

Wei Bin, 21, was intercepted by customs officers at Hong Kong International Airport while he was on his way home from Mozambique to Fujian province on June 17.

In his checked baggage was a black plastic bag carrying pieces of rhino horn, which prosecutors said had an estimated market value of between U$105,740 and US$217,700.

Before May 1, the maximum punishment for the offence was a HK$2 million fine, and two years in prison. That was increased to a HK$10 million (US$1.3 million) fine, and 10 years behind bars.

Wei, who had no prior convictions, was arrested after he failed to produce any valid certifying documents in accordance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Under caution, the carpenter told investigators he agreed to help his boss in Mozambique, also a Fujian native, to deliver the rhino horn for medicinal use, because he was told his air tickets and travel expenses would be covered.

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Wei pleaded guilty to one count of importing specimens of endangered animals.

Public prosecutor Kelvin Tang Ming-chung said the amendment was introduced to target and control wildlife trafficking, particularly ivory, as the government wanted to send a clear message that it would put an end to the situation.

The latest statistics from the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2015 show the global estimated number of rhinos fell to fewer than 30,000.

The court also heard there had been a consistent rise in poaching activities in Africa since 2009, with the number of rhinos poached in 2015 estimated at 1,342.

Defence counsel Sally Wong said her client was deeply remorseful for committing what he now understood to be a serious offence.

She said Wei was unaware of Hong Kong laws, so he trusted his boss when he said he would not have to bear personal responsibility even if he was caught.

Wong also urged the court to consider a similar case at the lower West Kowloon Court, in which the defendant was jailed for four months in September for trafficking 5.93kg of rhino horn, and 410 grams of ivory.

But Alex Hofford, wildlife campaigner at WildAid Hong Kong, said Wei’s sentence should reflect the dramatic increase in maximum penalties.

“It is vital the District Court judge imposes a ... jail sentence of years, not months,” Hofford said. “Only this can provide a suitable deterrent to the transnational organised crime gangs that are raping and pillaging Africa’s wildlife to the point of extinction.”

Deputy district judge Li Chi-ho will deliver his sentence next Wednesday.