Customs officials in southern China have stopped a traveller returning from Ethiopia with a bag containing hundreds of highly toxic jequirity beans, according to mainland media.
The man was carrying 100g of the seeds when he was stopped by inspectors at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport in Guangdong province, the Southern Daily reported.
The hard red and black seeds are attractive but highly poisonous and found mainly found in India. They are native to Southeast Asia, including Hong Kong.
The seeds are popular in ornaments and jewellery or even rosary beads, hence one of their other common names, rosary peas.
The passenger arriving in Guangzhou told airport staff that he picked the seeds from trees in Ethiopia due to their bright color.
It’s unknown whether the man knew anything about the toxicity of the seeds, or had any idea that most countries have strict regulation about importing plants.
Airport staff sent the seeds sent to the airport’s Quarantine Bureau’s phytosanitary laboratory, which confirmed their identity.
There have been reports on the mainland on people being poisoned, often fatally, by eating the beans or wearing bracelets or necklaces made from them.
The botanical name, Abrus precatorious, refers to the presence of abrin, a toxic compound that stops cells making proteins. It has a similar effect to ricin, one of the world’s most poisonous substances, derived from the seeds of the castor oil plant, Ricinus communis, which are also popular as beads or in instruments like maracas.
The castor oil plant is also native to Hong Kong.
Ricin is relatively easy to make, and has been linked to a number of attempted and successful assassinations. In 1978, the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was stabbed in the leg from behind with an umbrella carrying a tiny pellet of the substance while crossing London’s Waterloo Bridge.
There is no antidote to ricin poisoning and Markov died four days later.