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Belgium Arrests Suspected Chinese Ivory Smugglers

Belgian authorities have arrested 15 Chinese doctors on charges of smuggling 150 kilograms of ivory from Africa. The doctors had just completed a two-year stint in Mali and were passing through Brussels airport for their flight back to China.

An official at the Brussels prosecutors' office, Wenke Roggen, told Belgian news media that last June, customs officers at the airport seized 33 cartons weighing more than one ton.

The officers found several dozen elephant tusks as well as skins of endangered animal species. The cartons were destined for China and were marked as being personal effects.

Belgian news media reported that the customs officers were able to link the shipment to the chinese doctors because they found personal belongings of the physicians inside the cartons.

When the doctors arrived at Brussels airport last Saturday on a flight from Africa to change planes, they were arrested.

The prosecutors' office said the amount of ivory they were smuggling is equivalent to the tusks of 40 elephants. After being questioned, the Chinese doctors were also charged with criminal association.

The 1989 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species CITES outlawed the killing of elephants. But poaching of the giant animals continues. The population of African elephants today is estimated to be about 540,000, a little more than one quarter of what it was 30 years ago.

The 15 Chinese are due to appear Tuesday in a Brussels court. Under Belgian law, if they are found guilty of ivory trafficking, they could each get up to three months in prison. The maximum penalty for criminal association is two years.