Hundreds of protected pangolins, or scaly anteaters, were found aboard a Chinese vessel after the ship ran aground on a protected coral reef in the southwestern Philippines last week, officials said.
The 12 Chinese men on board were detained on charges of poaching and attempted bribery after the Philippine coast guard found 400 boxes stuffed with as many as 2,000 frozen, rolled-up pangolins with their scales already removed.
It was not clear whether the animals were frozen alive or had already been butchered as meat, Agence-France Presse reported.
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"It is bad enough that the Chinese have illegally entered our seas, navigated without boat papers and crashed recklessly into a national marine park and World Heritage Site," Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, World Wide Fund for Nature Philippines chief executive officer, said in a statement. "It is simply deplorable that they appear to be posing as fishermen to trade in illegal wildlife."
Pangolins are toothless, insect-eating mammals commonly found roaming in the wild in the western Philippine island of Palawan, the nearest land area to Tubbataha Reef where the Chinese boat had been stranded.
Pangolins are a protected species, but are widely hunted in parts of Asia for their meat, skin, and scales, which can sell for up to hundreds of dollars per kilogram. In China, they are known as a delicacy and are purported to have medicinal qualities.
The fishermen face up to 12 years' imprisonment and fines of up to $300,000 for the poaching charge alone. For possession of the pangolin meat, they can be imprisoned up to six years and fined.
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The Tubbataha National Marine Park, where the Chinese ship ran aground, is the same coral reef where a U.S. Navy ship got stuck in January
. The USS Guardian, based in Japan, had just completed a port call in Subic Bay, a former American naval base west of the Philippine capital Manila, when it hit the reef.
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