A mainland-bound boat carrying 600kg of frozen pangolins - an endangered scaly anteater - was intercepted in Deep Bay by the Marine Department in an anti-smuggling operation.
The suspicious vessel with two males on board was spotted by night patrol officials near the Hong Kong Shenzhen-Western Corridor at around 8pm on Thursday. When officials pursued the boat, which was heading towards the mainland from Ngau Hom Shek in the northwest New Territories, the vessel sped back towards Hong Kong. The suspects attempted to dispose of their cargo before managing to escape on foot.
Twenty boxes containing pangolin carcasses were later recovered in a sweep-and-search operation that ended at around 10.40pm. Six to seven pangolins were found inside each box. The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department estimated the cargo to be worth HK$600,000.
Pangolin flesh is regarded as a delicacy on the mainland, and its scales are believed to have medicinal properties.
'This was the first anti-smuggling operation this year that involved the illegal import of pangolins,' said Inspector Cheung Siu-wai, of the marine police.
The Marine Department will forward the case to the Customs and Excise Department for investigation.
If found and successfully prosecuted, the two smugglers face HK$25,000 to HK$50,000 in fines and prison terms of up to six months.
The only mammal known to have scales, the pangolin is protected under the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Trading of the animals or their products is prohibited by the Chinese government. Yet in other parts of the world, illegal trafficking of pangolins is rampant. They are often poached in the wild, mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia, further endangering populations.
Conservation body IUCN says there is no comprehensive data about pangolin numbers because they are difficult to study given their 'secretive, nocturnal' habits.
The number of species of pangolin that exist in the world. The Chinese pangolin is one of two species on the endangered list