Fifteen mainland Chinese doctors were arrested in Belgium on the weekend for trying to smuggle 150 kilos (330 pounds) of ivory from Africa where they had worked for two years, prosecutors said on Sunday.
The cargo consisted of 44 carved and 29 uncarved elephant tusks worth over a million euros (US$881,100), they told Reuters, the result of the killing of 40 elephants.
They said animal skins were also in the cargo, which was disguised as “personal effects” and bound for an address in mainland China when it was seized at Brussels airport on June 30.
Despite a decade-long international ban on ivory trade, poaching to obtain the prized white, enamel-like substance used for jewels and ornaments has not ended. Under Belgian law, the mainland Chinese face up to two years and three months of jail.
“(The 15 Chinese) have been charged with smuggling of ivory and animal skins and with criminal association,” Wenke Roggen, deputy chief prosecutor in Brussels, told Reuters.
The doctors were arrested early on Saturday en route back to mainland China after working two years in the West African country of Mali. Personal effects found among the ivory by police led them to detain the 15 Chinese when they arrived several weeks later.
Rogge said the cargo was “quite big”, but could not say whether it was the biggest ever ivory seizure in Belgium.
The Africa News Service reported in June that U.S. police had seized 118 kilos (260 pounds) of African ivory in the biggest-ever seizure of the material on the U.S. West Coast.
Decimation of African elephant herds by poachers prompted the international community to outlaw the killing of pachyderms in 1989 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
According to the Web site of the Environmental Investigation Agency, a U.S.-British group, before the ivory trade ban in 1989 over 2,000 African elephants were being slaughtered each week.
Demand for ivory has figured in the decline of the African elephant. Populations have fallen from two million animals in 1970 to an estimated 543,000 today across the vast continent.