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Itchy? Woman hid nearly 1000 cactus plants in her stockings

February 8, 2021 Headline News No Comments

Sniffer dogs at Auckland Airport detected a woman trying to enter New Zealand with nearly 1000 cactus plants strapped to her body – and a court has heard that the woman’s attempts to dispose of the cacti in a men’s toilet at the airport proved futile.

The offence happened in 2019, in the pre-pandemic era when entering New Zealand was easier than it is now, entailing no mandatory quarantine. Sentence has just been passed.

Wenqing (Wendy) Li, 38, was sentenced last week after pleading guilty to charges related to separate incidents at Auckland International Airport when returning from China to her Auckland home in 2019. The goods seized were of a high commercial value, Manukau District Court heard.

The court was told that on 24 March 2019, Li strapped stockings containing 947 cacti and succulents to her body and attempted to smuggle them into New Zealand. The cacti, which included eight endangered and threatened species, were worth over NZ$10,000.

This black stocking was filled with illegally imported plant matter. Photo: New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries

After a detector dog picked up the extraordinary scent of a traveller carrying an enormous number of cacti, Li tried, unsuccessfully, to conceal her offending by disposing of items in the airport toilets.

NZ Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) officers prevented the evidence from being destroyed and conducted a full search of the toilet area, where “a large amount of plant material was found”.

Three stockings filled with cacti and succulents were retrieved from a rubbish bin inside the men’s toilet.

In separate offending on 23 July 2019, Li was found in possession of 142 unauthorised seeds hidden in commercially packaged iPad covers in her luggage, as well as over 200 plant pots and garden ornaments wrapped in mouldy wet paper. Even worse, the plant pots were also found to contain a snail and pieces of tree fern stem.

While reports of wildlife smuggling are common, Li’s case makes clear that professional plant smugglers are also busy.

The court sentenced Li to intensive supervision for 12 months and 100 hours’ community work for smuggling succulents and endangered cacti into New Zealand. The court learned Li was a seller and trader of cacti and succulents on TradeMe (the New Zealand online trading equivalent of Gumtree and eBay). Judge McIlraith took a sentencing starting point of 15 months’ imprisonment.

Three stockings full of plant matter placed next to some of the plant matter illegally imported. Photo: New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries

In a statement later, MPI regional team manager compliance investigations north, Simon Anderson, said most people did the right thing when it came to biosecurity at the border.

“This sentencing serves as a good reminder that anyone who smuggles plants or other endangered species into New Zealand can expect to be prosecuted,” he said.

“It’s important to remember that bringing unauthorised plants into the country by any method, whether smuggling through the border in person or receiving products by mail, puts New Zealand’s biosecurity at risk.

“Biosecurity New Zealand takes its role of protecting New Zealand from biosecurity threats very seriously. Our country is fortunate to be free of many of the invasive pests and diseases found in other countries.

“The Department of Conservation, New Zealand Customs, and the Ministry for Primary Industries all work closely together on cases involving the trade in endangered species and treat such cases as very serious offending, especially when detected in New Zealand.

“Our economy and way of life is dependent on keeping these threats out of the country.”

Written by Peter Needham

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