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Smuggled species carry hidden dangers

Updated: 2013-10-21 00:08
By XU WEI ( China Daily)

Smuggled species carry hidden dangers

 A man strokes his pet lizard in Wuhan, Hubei province. Shi Yi / For China Daily

Venomous snakes and spiders, lizards and turtles, rare cactuses — it is a list of species most people would expect to find in a zoo. Yet, increasingly, China's customs officers are finding them hidden in suitcases and mail order packages.

In the first seven months of this year, officials at exit-entry points nationwide confiscated more than 240,000 batches of wild species concealed to avoid quarantine.

They included flesh-eating piranhas from Brazil, a deathstalker scorpion from Israel — both intended as pets, authorities said — as well as African snails, which are seen as a delicacy but are already causing ecological problems in Southeast China.

With a growing number of Chinese heading abroad for vacation, coupled with the boom in online shopping, officials warn that the problem is only going to get worse if a cohesive system is not put in place.

"The extent of the problem has gone beyond the law enforcement powers of a single government agency," said Deng Minghui, deputy director of the Sichuan Provincial Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Department. "We need the State to introduce specific legislation to enable close collaboration."

Preventing the spread of banned species falls under the jurisdiction of several official bodies. In this case, customs and quarantine are responsible for stopping them from entering, while those that get through are dealt with by agriculture and forestry bureaus. Plus, police forces and the post office also have roles to play.

In a written statement to China Daily, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said it is trying "to further cooperation between police, customs, the post office and civil aviation authorities" and make amendments to regulations introduced in 2001 on plants and animals and mail order parcels.

However, Deng said the situation would only improve if the upgraded rules on cooperation come from the State Council.

Sold online

The easiest solution would be to dampen enthusiasm for exotic pets among the Chinese. That looks unlikely, however, especially after the Internet has made it easier to trade such animals.

Under an exit-entry regulation that took effect in November, only cats and dogs can cross the Chinese border, and only after going through a strict quarantine procedure. Yet a visit to Taobao, China's largest online marketplace, shows much more is making its way over.

A search for arachnids for sale produces more than 1,000 hits, with species from Africa and South and Central America listed. The Chilean rose tarantula and Asian forest scorpion are among the bestsellers, and the most popular species had 317 recorded transactions.

According to the Beijing Entry-Exit Quarantine and Inspection Bureau, 10 of the 16 animal and plant species banned from being brought into China are being sold online.

"Most tourists who try to take wildlife or plants across the border intend to sell them to pet stores," said Wang Yao from the bureau's plant and animal department. "Many don't even know what they are doing is illegal.

"The things we've found have defied our imagination," he added, explaining that the contraband is often disguised as a toy or wrapped in clothes to avoid detection.

Wang Fulin, director of the international mail office for the Chongqing Exit-Entry Inspection and Quarantine Bureau, said he is also surprised by how some plants, mostly cactuses, are wrapped in packages to protect them.

"The exterior part is usually clothes, to disguise it, and inside are newspapers to ensure the plants stay moist," he said. "Then there is often a plastic wrapping with the plant inside and root dipped in artificial soil."

A major source of the exotic plants seized in Chongqing is South Korea's Jeju Island, he added.

With more than 44 million mail packages arriving and leaving the country last year, customs checkpoints in high-traffic areas are now forced to operate 24 hours a day, according to the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine statement.

The authority said it will enhance communication with online marketplaces to tackle the issue. However, as it stands, traders found selling forbidden species face only a fine, as under the law it is an administrative offense, rather than criminal.

"There are no regulations that clearly state what can be kept as a pet and what can't," said Sun Quanhui, who works with the World Society for the Protection of Animals.

Now, authorities can only refer to the law on protecting wild animals, which is largely focused on endangered species, he added.

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