Authorities in Malaysia have seized 30 tons of pangolin parts in the state of Sabah, highlighting the acute threat to what is believed to be the world’s most trafficked mammal.
Police raided two facilities on Thursday, located in the capital of Kota Kinabalu and the nearby town of Tamparuli, as Motherboard’s Sarah Emerson reports. According to the conservation group Traffic, a huge stash of pangolin parts was uncovered at the sites: 1,800 boxes of frozen pangolins, 572 individual frozen pangolins, nearly 800 pounds of pangolin scales and 61 live pangolins that had been stuffed into cages and the trunk of a car.
The haul has an estimated worth of $2 million, according to the Associated Press. Authorities also found two bear paws and the bodies of four flying foxes.
Weighing, sealing and vacuum-packing equipment found at the facilities suggests that “a well-established pangolin processing venture” was being run out of the two locations, Traffic says. A 35-year-old man, believed to be the manager of the Kota Kinabalu facility, has been arrested.
Pangolins, are shy, anteater-like creatures that live across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Their scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine, and pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in China and other Asian countries. As a result, the animals have been ruthlessly hunted; experts think at least one million pangolins have been traded over the past ten years. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists all eight species of pangolin as either vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered.
Pangolins are protected under international law, but illegal trafficking of the animals continues at an alarming rate. Earlier this month, for instance, officials in Hong Kong announced that they had seized a nine-ton shipment of pangolin scales that had been hidden under slabs of frozen meat on a vessel bound for Vietnam from Nigeria. Sabah in Malaysia is considered a major transit point in the pangolin trafficking network between Africa and Asia. In 2017 alone, five tons of pangolin scales were seized at a Sabah port—the haul was reportedly heading from Nigeria to China—and another 740 pounds of scales were intercepted at the mail center of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Packed into 13 boxes, the scales were being sent to the same address in Hong Kong.
Traffic notes that the latest bust shows Sabah is more than just a transit hub; local poaching is happening as well. Initial investigations indicate that the Kota Kinabalu factory has been operating for seven years, dealing in pangolins that were purchased from local poachers and distributed both locally and in the neighboring state of Sarawak.
In the hopes of bolstering authorities’ efforts to crack down on smuggling rings, experts are trying to raise awareness about the plight of the pangolin. Scientists studying the animals in Uganda recently released rare footage of giant pangolins scurrying about in a sanctuary, for instance, with the goal of drumming up interest in the creatures.
“This species is literally being wiped out, it’s being obliterated across central Africa, there’s no doubt about that,” Stuart Nixon, a field program co-ordinator at the global conservation charity Chester Zoo, tells the BBC. Trying to get people engaged and to care about pangolins is really the key step.”