Photograph by Binsar Bakkara, AP
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Last year Indonesian authorities confiscated these dead pangolins. The animals are poached for their scales and meat.

Photograph by Binsar Bakkara, AP

Four Tons of ‘Plastic’ Discovered to Be Smuggled Pangolin Scales

In this week’s crime blotter: prison for an auctioneer, a bird researcher bust, and a suspected ranger turned poacher.

Hong Kong officials made one of the largest ever seizures of African pangolin scales on Thursday after discovering 4.4 tons (4,000 kilograms) of scales hidden in cargo labeled “sliced plastics” from Cameroon, according to a press release from the government.

The haul is estimated to represent between 1,100 and 6,600 pangolins and be worth $1.25 million (HK$9.8 million), according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an international conservation organization.

Pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters, are nocturnal mammals found in Africa and Asia whose populations have plummeted in recent years. They gained recognition a few years ago when wildlife experts gave them the unhappy distinction of being the most trafficked mammal in the world. More than a million pangolins have been illegally plucked from the wild during the past decade to satisfy demand—mainly in China and Vietnam—for their meat and scales, used in traditional medicine and considered a delicacy.

The Hong Kong government says this is one of the biggest pangolin scale busts they’ve made in the last five years, and the IUCN says it’s one of the biggest busts of African pangolin scales ever.

“There is no question that pangolins are suffering deeply at the hands of traffickers,” said Jeff Flocken, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, an animal protection nonprofit, in a statement. “The most recent incident is another example of why stronger protections for pangolins are needed immediately.”

A number of countries have proposed stronger international protections for all eight species of Asian and African pangolins. Currently, the limited legal trade in African pangolins has provided cover for the flourishing illegal trade of all pangolin species. The proposals, which will be considered by the 182 member countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) this fall, would make it illegal to trade in all eight species. (Also see: "What’s Next for the World’s Most Trafficked Mammal?")

Also this week, police in Sumatra arrested an Indonesian soldier and his suspected accomplice after finding eight pangolins in the backseat of their car, Mongabay reports. They were intercepted while driving in Medina after police staked out the duo for two days.

Some other wildlife crime busts, convictions, and investigations around the world announced this past week:

ROGUE RANGERS: Cops arrested a ranger in South Africa’s Kruger National Park suspected of poaching a rhino, Lowvelder reports. Another suspect drowned after jumping into the Nsikazi River just outside the park, and a third suspect escaped.

BIDDING ON WILDLIFE: A U.S. judge sentenced prominent auctioneer Joseph Chait, of Beverly Hills-based I.M. Chait Gallery, to a year and a day in prison and a $10,000 fine for conspiring to smuggle rhino horn, elephant ivory, and coral worth at least $1 million, the Department of Justice announced. Chait and his co-conspirators falsified customs forms by claiming that rhino horn and elephant ivory products were made of bone, wood, or plastic.

BUSTED BIRD RESEARCHER: Federal prosecutors charged an ornithologist and former research affiliate with the University of Alaska Museum of the North with several counts of illegally smuggling bird specimens into the U.S., according to KTUU. He’s accused of smuggling birds from Peru and using a federal permit that let him import birds for the museum to bulk up his personal collection.

CAVIAR CRACKDOWN: A weeks-long investigation of a sturgeon poaching operation resulted in the arrest of six men accused of stealing sturgeon from the Sacramento River in California, the Sacramento Bee reports. The suspects allegedly took white sturgeon, which are highly sought after for their meat and eggs for caviar. The price of caviar has jumped in recent years, leading to an increase of poaching in California and the Pacific Northwest.

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to