Hong Kong customs officers last month intercepted a record 8.3 tonnes of pangolin scales and hundreds of elephant tusks worth more than US$8 million combined, underscoring the threat to endangered species from demand in Asia.
Acting on a tip from Chinese authorities, Hong Kong officials found the haul in a refrigerated container labeled as frozen meat from Nigeria, officials said on Friday.
The smugglers kept the temperature low to better disguise the smell of the illicit cargo, they said.
Police arrested two people in connection with the seizure.
It was the largest-ever seizure of pangolin scales in Hong Kong, representing the product of about 14,000 animals and one of the largest of ivory in a decade, the officials said.
Scales of the anteater-like pangolin have for centuries been highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine.
The scales, made of keratin akin to fingernails, are often roasted and ground to a powder before being added into a mix of ingredients to purportedly cure arthritis, promote breastfeeding for mothers and boost male virility.
Scientists have designated all species of pangolins as being at risk of extinction.
Over the past two decades, the number of pangolins worldwide has dropped by about 90 percent.
Ivory tusks are a cherished decorative craft material in Asia, resulting in the devastation of wild elephant populations in Africa.
Under Hong Kong law, the importation and sale of endangered species and their products can be punished by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of US$1.3 million.
China and Hong Kong have sought to crack down on the illegal trade, although the territory remains a major transit point for endangered species products and other contraband.
Last year, following the outlawing of ivory sales in China, Hong Kong’s legislature enacted a complete ban on the local ivory trade to take effect by 2021, while raising penalties for offenders.
Meanwhile, a court in Thailand this week dismissed charges against a Thai man believed to be a kingpin in the illicit trade, according to the Freeland Foundation, an organization that works with police to combat trafficking.
Boonchai Bach was arrested by Thai police a little more than one year ago at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport for his alleged involvement in the smuggling of 11kg of rhino horns from Africa worth US$700,000.
A Chinese man and a Thai wildlife quarantine officer accused of assisting the smugglers were also arrested.
Citing a lack of evidence, the Samut Prakan Provincial Court found Boonchai Bach not guilty of multiple charges relating to wildlife trafficking, Freeland said.
Boonchai was suspected of running a large trafficking network on the Thai-Lao border that spread into Vietnam.
He and his family played a key role in a criminal syndicate that smuggled items including ivory, rhino horn, pangolins, tigers, lions and other rare and endangered species, Freeland said.
“Prosecution of a complex transnational organized crime case like this requires a multi-agency effort to bring all the pieces of the puzzle together,” Freeland founder Steven Galster said.
“Instead, we saw a kingpin walk free after a narrowly focused case fell apart when the prosecution’s only major witness flipped in front of his boss,” Galster added.
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