Hong Kong courts

Hong Kong court jails mainland Chinese rhino horn smuggler for 8 months after law toughened on illicit wildlife trade

  • Customs officers at airport caught carpenter Wei Bin, 21, with goods in his luggage worth an estimated U$105,740 to US$217,700
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2018, 6:11pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2018, 10:58pm

A mainland Chinese carpenter was jailed for eight months on Wednesday for smuggling more than 3.1kg of rhino horn into Hong Kong, the lengthiest prison term since the city introduced tougher penalties to combat wildlife trafficking earlier this year.

Deputy District Judge Li Chi-ho stressed that a harsher punishment was needed to reflect the change in the law when he jailed Wei Bin, 21, whose smuggled goods had an estimated market value of between US$105,740 (HK$824,800) and US$217,700.

The judge, who accepted Wei was merely ignorant, said that if he failed to impose the lengthy jail sentence, it would send a wrong message to opportunists, and in turn encourage the illicit trade.

Environmentalists described the sentence as “a step in the right direction” and said it would have a deterrent effect.

Wei was stopped by customs officers at Hong Kong International Airport on June 17 on his way home from Mozambique to Fujian. Officers found the rhino horn in a plastic bag in his luggage, but he had no valid certifying documents as required under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Wei last week pleaded guilty in the District Court to one count of importing specimens of endangered animals.

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Following his arrest, Wei told investigators he agreed to help his boss in Mozambique, also a Fujian native, to deliver the rhino horn for medicinal use. In return, his air tickets and travel expenses would be covered. Li accepted Wei’s argument that there was no evidence to suggest the specimens were for commercial purposes. But he noted that not only was the amount small enough to evade detection, it was of high value.

The latest statistics from the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2015 showed the global estimated number of rhinos had fallen to fewer than 30,000. The court also heard there had been a consistent rise in poaching in Africa since 2009, with an estimated 1,342 rhinos killed in 2015.

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Alex Hofford, wildlife campaigner at WildAid Hong Kong, said Wei’s sentence was a “new improvement”.

“Whilst the sentence was not quite as long as we would have liked, there is no doubt that the deterrent effect to the transnational organised crime gangs who are decimating Africa’s last remaining wildlife to the brink of extinction, is now much greater than before, and for that we thank the judge,” he said.

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Environmentalist Rosana Ng from ADM Capital Foundation said it was “a step in the right direction” but she urged prosecutors and judges to take the issue seriously and continue to pass down deterrent sentences.

The tougher law on wildlife trafficking came into effect in Hong Kong on May 1, with the maximum punishment for the offence increased to 10 years in prison and a HK$10 million fine, up from a two-year jail sentence and a HK$2 million fine.

In September, a mainland businessman convicted of illegally bringing rhino horn and ivory into Hong Kong from South Africa had his two months’ jail term increased to four months.

Liu Xin, the first person affected by the stricter sentencing, was jailed for trafficking 5.9kg of rhino horn and 410 grams of ivory with a value of HK$1.2 million. A magistrate lengthened the sentence after prosecutors demanded a review.

Additional reporting by Karen Zhang