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15 Chinese Doctors Face Ivory Smuggling Probe
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Fifteen Chinese doctors accused in a smuggling case involving 150 kg of ivory escaped African prosecutors last week, but now the Chinese government has them in its sights.

The suspects, who had spent two years in the west African nation of Mali, were originally detained in Belgium while en route to China after local authorities seized their luggage and found 44 carved and 29 uncarved elephant tusks worth about US$881,100.

The doctors were released late last week, before Mali investigators could finish accumulating evidence of criminal involvement, and flew back to their homes in east China’s Zhejiang Province.

But the saga was not over. A General Administration of Customs official in charge of smuggling cases said that the administration will launch its own probe into the activities of the doctors to determine if they were involved in the outlawed ivory trade.

The official, who identified himself only as Mr Wang, said the investigation is in keeping with international covenants but declined to elaborate further.

According to Zhejiang Province’s Qianjiang Evening News, local health officials close to the case have expressed doubts about the smuggling charges.

It is more likely, the paper quoted them as saying, that the doctors purchased the ivory either for their private collections or as gifts for friends

However, Fan Zhiyong, a senior official and expert on endangered species protection in China, said the doctors had broken the law by buying and taking home the banned products, regardless of their motives.

“It was absolutely an infraction. China has banned the import and export of ivory products for a decade and I think they knew this,” Fan said.

The doctors have all refused requests for interviews.

China has historically been a heavy importer of ivory tusks from Africa, which it used in the creation of elaborate art works. This practice, dating back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), gained China international fame.

The government banned imports and exports of ivory products in 1991 and punishments, ranging from heavy fines to imprisonment, were applied to violators.

(China Daily 08/17/2001)

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