Smuggler Caught with 1,000 Cacti Strapped to Her Body

  • There has to be an easier way to transport prickly plants. There just has to.

Lately, smugglers have been making headlines more than usual. Just last week we brought you a story of a man who tried to bring 74 chameleons to Austria in his suitcase.

Now, New Zealand judges have handed out a sentence to another would-be smuggler. But this time, it was a much pricklier case.

Answer us this: if you tried to smuggle cacti, how would you do it? Unless you’re some kind of a hardcore masochist, you probably wouldn’t strap them to your body, but that was just what this lady did.

On March 24, 2019, New Zealand’s biosecurity officials apprehended Wenqing “Wendy” Li, according to the New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI). The now 38-year-old woman, who sells succulents and cacti on the Trade Me website, was returning from her trip to China.

We can only assume that she had gone abroad to acquire some more stock. That’s because the officials found 947 cacti and succulents attached to her body.

You’d imagine having just one cactus press against your skin would be unbearable, let alone nearly 1,000 of them. For a smuggler, Li is one iron lady.

Among the plants were eight endangered and threatened species. The total value of Li’s haul was more than $7,000.

That’s one heck of a heap of cacti.

Does this look like something you want pressed against you on an airplane?

Dogs and Bathrooms

As we mentioned, on the day of her arrest Li had just disembarked her flight from China at the Auckland International Airport. As she was going through the customs – naturally saying she had nothing to declare – a detector dog started giving her some unwanted attention.

Li, determined not get caught, decided that it was time to dump her illicit cargo. With customs officials tailing her, she started wandering from one airport bathroom to another.

With each visit, she tried to dispose of a number of plants by flushing them down the drain or throwing them in the trash. But the MPI officials got ahead of her.

“MPI officers prevented the evidence being destroyed and conducted a full search of the toilet area where a large amount of plant material was found,” the MPI said in a statement.

In one men’s room trash can, the authorities found three stockings filled with cacti. When they searched Li, they found even more stockings wrapped around her body, each containing a haul of plants.

This wasn’t the only time Li had tried brining unauthorized plants into her country. In a separate offending, she was caught with 142 illegal seeds in her luggage hidden inside commercially packaged iPad covers.

Not only that, she was carrying wet, moldy lumps of paper containing more than 200 plant pots and garden ornaments. Inside one plant pot was also an unlucky snail that Li had unwittingly taken on a trip.

Off to Serve the Community

On February 3, Li faced judge McIlraith in Manukau District Court. The starting point for the sentencing was 15 months in prison.

Lucky for Li, though, she ended up not going to jail. Instead, the judge sentenced her to 12 months of intensive supervision and 100 hours of community service.

According to CNN, intensive supervision is a community-based sentence under New Zealand law. It requires the sentenced to report to a probation officer on a regular basis, among other possible requirements.

“This sentencing serves as a good reminder that anyone who smuggles plants or other endangered species into New Zealand can expect to be prosecuted,” said Simon Anderson, an MPI regional team manager for compliance investigations.

“It’s important to remember that bringing unauthorized 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,” he added.

Strict Requirements

And speaking of biosecurity, New Zealand takes that stuff very seriously. As an island nation, the country’s flora and fauna are particularly vulnerable to invasive species.

The New Zealand government strictly limits what you’re allowed to bring into land of the Kiwi bird. In fact, they’re biosecurity trailblazers – New Zealand enacted the world’s first biosecurity control act in 1993.

“Our country is fortunate to be free of many of the invasive pests and diseases found in other countries. Our economy and way of life is dependent on keeping these threats out of the country,” Anderson said.

New Zealand’s list of prohibited biological items includes most food products, such as meat, dairy, honey, and fruits. It is actually possible to import some plants and agricultural products, but that requires a strict biosecurity screening.

That’s something Li naturally neglected to do when attempting to smuggle her cacti through the customs.

On its website, MPI has an impressive list of information that anyone bringing plants into New Zealand should have on hand before entering the customs. The list includes knowing the precise origin of the plants, in-depth understanding of packaging and sanitary requirements, and a pre-booked pest screening and treatment.

You know what, maybe it’d be easier to not even try bringing anything living into New Zealand.

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