HONG KONG - Hong Kong customs officers unveiled a record seizure of pangolin scales on Friday, the latest huge haul to underscore the city’s central role in the lucrative and booming illegal wildlife trade.
Officials said they conducted a joint investigation with mainland customs officers on Jan. 16, seizing 8,300 kilograms of pangolin scales and 2,100 kilograms of ivory tusks hidden inside a container at a customs facility.
“This is a record high in quantity for a seizure of pangolin scales,” the customs department said in a statement.
Customs officers displayed dozens of sacks filled with scales to the media on Friday as well as hundreds of uncarved tusks, in an acrid-smelling room. Officials estimated the value of the haul at 62 million Hong Kong dollars ($8 million).
The announcement came less than two weeks after a coalition of local conservation groups called on Hong Kong to do more to crack down on illegal wildlife smuggling by ending legal loopholes and lenient sentences.
In a landmark report analyzing seizures and convictions, conservationists said the southern Chinese financial hub played a “disproportionate” role in wildlife crime — accounting for around a fifth of all global ivory seizures and nearly half of all pangolins seized in the last decade.
Warning that the amount of contraband flooding through Hong Kong’s ports was likely between five and 10 times the amount seized, they called on authorities to list wildlife trafficking offenses under the city’s organized crime legislation targeting drug traffickers and triad gangs
Hong Kong recently increased the maximum penalties on smuggling to 10 years in jail and a HK$10 million fine.
Historically the few who are caught have rarely face stiff penalties.
The timid and nocturnal pangolin, which rolls into a ball when threatened — making them defenceless against poachers — is one of the most heavily trafficked mammals.
It is sought after for its meat and the unproven medicinal properties of their scales — which are made from nothing more than keratin, the same material that makes up human fingernails and hair.
Pangolin populations have been decimated by a surge in demand, particularly in mainland China.
China finally banned the ivory trade a year ago while Hong Kong began phasing it out a few months later.
But demand is still fueled by a thriving black market.