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Illegal wildlife trade still needs tougher penalties, say Hong Kong experts after rare turtle smuggling case

Illegal wildlife trade still needs tougher penalties, say Hong Kong experts after rare turtle smuggling case

On March 8, a plane left Hong Kong for Japan with some tiny but precious cargo. Delicately wrapped in cotton bags and packed in specially designed wooden crates were 59 endangered Ryukyu black-breasted leaf turtles. The reptiles were heading home.
Their saga came to light on October 26 last year when 60 turtles (one later died) were intercepted by customs at Hong Kong International Airport.
A 43-year-old Japanese man arriving from Tokyo was arrested. He claimed he was helping a friend from Okinawa bring the turtles – which were stuffed in cotton socks in two boxes of checked-in baggage – to Hong Kong for breeding purposes.
However, during his court hearing in May, defendant Naoki Hiraguchi changed his plea to guilty. He was subsequently sentenced to a year in prison. Environmentalists could not hide their disappointment at his punishment.
Gary Ades is head of Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden’s (KFBG) fauna conservation department. The department operates KFBG’s Wild Animal Rescue Centre in Hong Kong’s New Territories, where the turtles spent months recovering.
He says that, while their repatriation was vital for the conservation of the species – which is listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species – the sentence just was not harsh enough to deter other smugglers.