More than three tonnes of pangolin scales worth HK$17 million have been found hidden in two shipping containers that arrived in Hong Kong from Africa.
The Customs and Excise Department said yesterday it was the biggest seizure of its kind in five years.
The haul is believed to have come from more than 8,000 of the endangered scaly anteaters and been bound for the mainland, where prices on the black market have soared.
"Because of the high demand for pangolin scales, the price on the black market has risen to HK$5,000 per kilogram from HK$2,000 a kilogram over the past five years," a government source said.
The scales - used in Chinese medicine and thought to have curative powers - are understood to sell for HK$1,500 to HK$2,000 a kilogram in Africa.
They were seized from two shipments which both arrived via Malaysia.
One of the containers arrived from Uganda via Kenya and Malaysia on May 28, ostensibly carrying plastic waste. Some 40 bags containing one tonne of scales were discovered inside.
Another container, officially containing timber from Cameroon, was selected for inspection on June 11; officers seized 2.34 tonnes of scales in 115 bags.
Two days later, customs officers arrested a Malaysian businessman, aged 46. He has been released on bail pending further investigation.
Wong Wai-hung, a divisional commander of the department's ports and maritime command, said the total value of the seized scales was about HK$17 million. "It is believed that the two shipments of pangolin scales belong to the same smuggling syndicate," Wong said.
There have been three other major seizures of pangolin scales since 2008.
Hui Wai-ming, group head of the department's syndicate crimes investigation bureau, said there was no evidence to suggest that Hong Kong was being used as a transit hub to smuggle endangered species.
"This is an individual case," Hui said.
He added that the department would step up intelligence exchanges with overseas law enforcement agencies and increase inspections to combat smuggling.
Dr Azaria Wong Kam-yan, endangered species protection officer with the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, said the department would work with customs to try to deter wildlife trafficking.
Importing undeclared cargo carries a maximum penalty of a HK$2 million fine and seven years in prison, Wong said.
Under the law governing protection of endangered species, the maximum penalty for importing such items without a licence is a HK$50,000 fine and six months in jail.