Customs officials in southern China’s Guangdong province seized 2,764 frozen pangolin carcasses last month in the biggest trafficking case involving the endangered species in five years.

Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in China and traditional Chinese medicine holds that pangolin scales possess healing qualities. The animals were found in 414 cooling boxes loaded aboard a fishing vessel sailing from Southeast Asia.

Frozen pangolin

The haul weighed in at 11.5 tonnes and would have netted RMB10,000 for the smugglers if their boat had not been intercepted at Jiangmen, a prefecture-level city located 100 kilometres from Guangzhou in the Pearl River Delta region.

Frozen pangolin

Pangolin are a protected species in both mainland China and Hong Kong, where possession of the animal can carry a fine of up to HK$10,000 or a jail sentence of up to three years.

In recent years, rising demand has pushed some species of the scale-covered anteater near to extinction. Over-hunting in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and in countries across Africa have have put pangolin populations under threat.

As pangolin become more endangered, declining stocks have only made the illegal trade more profitable. A kilogram of pangolin scales that earned just RMB80 (HK$98) in the 1990s now yields RMB1,200 (HK$1,468) on the black market, according to an expert at China’s State Forestry Administration.

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick is an award-winning journalist and scholar from Hong Kong who has reported on the city’s politics, protests, and policing for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, TIME, The Guardian, The Independent, and others