Boarding a suspect fishing vessel in the early morning of June 6th, Chinese customs officials discovered 2,090 frozen pangolins and 92 cases of pangolin scales, weighing an astounding 3,960 pounds. Manned by five Chinese and one Malaysian national, the boat was awaiting instructions via satellite phone as to where to meet another ship to transfer the illegal cargo while still at sea.
"The use of satellite phones and trans-shipment of cargo at sea are indicative of the increasingly sophisticated methods being used by the organized criminal gangs involved in wildlife crime," said James Compton, TRAFFIC’s Asia Pacific coordinator, in a press release.
All four species of Asian pangolin are banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Despite the ban, pangolins remain one of the most heavily trafficked species in Asia. Illegal pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in Southeast Asia and its scales are used in traditional medicine. Some pangolins are even stuffed and displayed. The trade has pushed two species, the Chinese and Malayan or Sunda pangolin, to be evaluated as Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Despite a lack of data—given the mammals' nocturnal and shy habits—researchers believe that both of these species' populations have dropped by 50 percent in just 15 years.
The other two species, the Philippine and the thick-tailed pangolin, are classified as Near Threatened. The ecological role of pangolins in Asia has not been well-established, but since they feed on ants and termites they likely help control these populations.
The seizure is also important as it was made by Chinese officials, who have at times turned a blind eye to illegal wildlife trafficking.
From pangolins to tigers, rhinoceroses to elephants, and turtles to rodents, a wide-variety of species are threatened by the global illegal wildlife trade. East Asia, where a number of species are consumed in traditional medicines or as food, isn't the only destination: a recent report found that 270 tons of illegal bushmeat from Africa moves through one European airport (Charles de Gaulle in Paris) every year.
Poached pangolins descaled. The meat will be sold for food, while the scales are sold as traditional remedies. Photo courtesy of: TRAFFIC.