Hong Kong customs seized a record number of suspected rhino horns with an estimated market value of HK$8 million (US$1 million) from two men arriving at the airport from South Africa on Thursday.
The 24 pieces, which weighed about 40kg in total, were found in two check-in carton boxes carried by the two visitors during customs clearance at Hong Kong International Airport, the Customs and Excise Department said.
The two suspects, aged 28 and 33, were flying in from Johannesburg and planning to transit to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
It was a record haul for rhino horns found on arriving air passengers, customs added.
Upon arrest of the duo, the cases were handed over to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) for follow-up investigation.
Between 2013 and the first 10 months of 2018, the AFCD seized a total of about 202kg of rhino horns, of which 76 pieces were whole horns, according to Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing.
Rhino horn is used in traditional Chinese medicine, practitioners of which claim it has medicinal benefits ranging from boosting virility to curing cancer, despite there being no scientific evidence to back any of their claims. It is also used for carving, and is regarded as a status symbol.
Importation and possession of rhino horns are banned in Hong Kong except when the importer or owner can present an official certificate to prove the horns were acquired before July 1, 1975, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) started to regulate such trade.
The maximum penalties for smuggling and illegal trading of endangered species in Hong Kong have been increased to a fine of HK$10 million and 10 years’ imprisonment since May last year, as the latest amendment on the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance took effect.
The specimens will also be forfeited upon conviction, according to the ordinance.
The heaviest sentence since the amendment was handed down last Friday in the District Court.
Two defendants were sentenced to 16 months in jail for smuggling about 24kg and 17kg of agarwood, a dark resinous heartwood protected by the ordinance.
The two defendants were intercepted at Hong Kong International Airport last August and were found carrying two suitcases filled with the precious wood.