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China Announces Its Largest-Ever Seizure Of Trafficked Pangolin Scales

An undated photo, released Wednesday, shows Shanghai customs officers checking pangolin scales at a port in Shanghai. Chinese customs seized over three tonnes of pangolin scales, state media said, in the country's biggest-ever smuggling case involving the animal parts.

Chinese officials have seized 3.1 tonnes (more than 3.4 tons) of illegally trafficked pangolin scales from a port in Shanghai, according to state media.

It's the largest such seizure China has ever made, Xinhua News Agency reports.

Pangolins are the world's most widely trafficked mammals — their meat is a delicacy and their scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine.

All eight species of pangolin are facing extinction.

"The pangolin is about the size of a raccoon and looks like an artichoke with legs," NPR's Jackie Northam wrote last year. "Its head and body are covered with an armor of thorny scales, giving it the appearance of a reptile. When a pangolin is scared, it curls up into a tight ball."

This fall, commercial trade of the pangolin was "officially banned by the international body responsible for regulating the international trade of endangered species," as NPR's Rebecca Hersher reported.

Pangolins are now covered by "the strictest protections available under international law," she writes.

Rebecca continued:

"In a statement following news of the international commercial ban, Elly Pepper, the deputy director of the Natural Resource Defense Council's wildlife trade initiative, wrote that the trade ban would 'give the world's most-trafficked mammal a fighting chance at survival.' "

The pangolin scales seized in Shanghai were mixed in with wood products shipped from Nigeria, Phys.org reports, citing state broadcaster CCTV.

The illicit animal parts were discovered on Dec. 10, the South China Morning Post reports, and authorities accuse the suspects of smuggling pangolin scales from Africa to China since 2015.

Approximately 5,000 to 7,500 pangolins must have been killed to produce the more than 3 tons of pangolin scales, Xinhua reports.

Based on reported black-market prices for the scales, the seized scales would have been worth more than $2 million, Phys.org says.

"The scales are nothing more than keratin, the same substance that makes up fingernails," the science news service writes. "Yet it has been falsely touted as a cure for multiple ailments, including cancer, among some practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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