Wildlife trafficking busts in China bring record seizures

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1999:

HONG KONG––Banning imports of turtles for
meat after verotoxin-producing e – c o l i bacteria turned up in a
cargo of live freshwater turtles brought from Thailand via
Hong Kong, officials in Shenzhen, China proved they meant
business on September 8, seizing 6.6 metric tons of live Thai
softshelled turtles from a Hong Kong-registered fishing boat
off Sha Chau.
The turtles reportedly would have brought about
$400,000 if delivered to market. Vessel master Kwan Lamwa,
31, and a 28-year-old crew member were arrested.
Just a year ago the Sha Chau bust would have been
the biggest ever made by Chinese authorities. In 1999,
though, it wasn’t even the biggest of the summer.

Chinese wildlife law enforcement once consisted of
occasional quick executions of desperados allegedly caught
with panda or tiger pelts. Cynics suspected the executions
were as much to shut the poachers up before they could name
well-placed confederates as to set a public example.
Now, however, China has broken ground on the
hugely controversial Three Gorges Dam, preparing to harness
the Yangtse River for hydroelectric energy, irrigation water,
and flood control. Chinese leaders hope to appear ecologically
responsible. Hitting poachers and wildlife traffickers harder
than at any time since China fell to Mao Tse Tung and the Red
Army in 1949 is one way to do it.
Besides that, China apparently got a big break when
South Kowloon police in December 1997 seized 130 shahtoosh
shawls from Barati Ashok Assomull, 50, who reportedly
hoped to sell them for $579,000: twice her purchase price.
Shahtoosh is made from the fur of the chiru antelope,
an internationally recognized endangered species. As
exposed by the arrest and subsequent trial of Assomull, the
shahtoosh traffic appears to involve trading shahtoosh fibres
from Tibet for tiger bone poached in India and Southeast Asia
––thereby putting not one but two endangered species at risk.
Convicted on February 25, 1999, Assomull was not
sentenced until April 13. In the interim, New Delhi police
and Indian wildlife agents seized 96 shahtoosh shawls from
one site and 13 each from two others, arresting at least three
people. Chinese police then captured 298 chiru pelts and
2,000 rounds of ammunition, arresting seven alleged poachers,
in a series of raids near the Hoh Xil Nature Reserve in
Qinghai province.
Assomull, believed to have provided information in
exchange for lenient sentencing, was then fined $300,000 and
given a three-month suspended jail term.
Further raids in the Hol Xil Nature Reserve involved
“police and rangers from Quinhai province, Tibet, and the
Xinjiang Autonomous Region, which all border on the
reserve,” the South China Morning Post disclosed in late
May. “Sixty-six poachers were arrested, one poacher was
killed in a shoot-out, 17 poaching gangs were disbanded, and
1,685 antelope hides were seized,” along with “545 antelope
heads, 18 vehicles, 14 rifles, and 12,000 rounds of ammo.”
But more poachers were at large. On June 18
wildlife officials found the remains of 475 chiru on Aherjin
Mountain in northwest Xinjiang. Following the poachers’ tire
tracks to their camp, “The task force found itself seriously
outnumbered and equipped only with limited bullets and poor
weapons as gunfire erupted,” according to Inside China
T o d a y. “The team had to call for a police backup from the
regional capital, Urumuqui, and a detachment of the People’s
Armed Police.”
The gun battle ended six hours later with another
poacher dead and 30 more in custody.
One thing leads to another. Within two weeks,
Chinese customs officials at Ruili, in Yunnan province, near
the Myanmar (Burma) border intercepted a half-metric ton of
animal parts when what were offically termed “routine checks
of mail bags” led them to a facility which apparently sold as
many as 1,000 parcels of wildlife contraband per month. The
inventory reportedly included 575 large snakes’ remains, 11
tiger skins, two refrigerators of frozen bears’ paws, and as
many as 2,000 pelts from other animals.
Just a day later the China Agriculture and Fisheries
Department offered rewards of up to $5,000 for information
leading to seizures of wildlife contraband, and up to $20,000
for information leading to successful prosecutions. The
reward program had reportedly been debated for two years.
China prosecuted 217 wildlife traffickers in 1998,
and 124 during the first half of 1999.

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