If you’ve ever seen reality shows about what goes on at border security, you already know that people try to smuggle all kinds of weird stuff into other countries. Police and customs officials have to be well trained to detect when something is not quite right. When customs authorities in China spotted a strange shipping container at a port one day, they were suspicious. When they opened the container, they found something truly unexpected.
Approaching The Crate
Customs officials in Shenzhen, China, weren’t sure what to expect when they spotted and flagged a suspicious cargo container that had arrived in Yantian District’s port. It arrived through unconventional channels without the right paperwork, which was already enough to put them on high alert.
Most of the time these cargo containers are full of some pretty innocent stuff. Not this time, though. This time things got a lot more sinister.
Is It Really Empty?
The customs officials were told that the shipping container was empty, but the officers from the Dapeng Customs Anti-Smuggling Branch didn’t believe that for one minute. They knew they had to inspect the inside. They found a pair of bolt cutters and got to work opening the crate.
They had a feeling that there was something inside that might be of interest to them. Why would somebody ship an empty crate to another country?
They broke the lock on the shipping container and immediately noticed that it was filled to the brim with blue-and-red-striped bags. They sliced open one of the bags and saw that it was full of coal. But if coal was all these bags were carrying, why try to keep it a secret?
They knew that the coal was likely a cover for some other illegal substance. These people thought they were tricky, but it turns out that they weren’t tricky enough.
The Stench of Discovery
The investigating officers decided to look a little bit more closely at these bags. They pulled out each sack, and before they were even halfway through they noticed an unforgettable smell. It was the smell of something rotten. Literally. Something was decaying in these striped bags.
The workers had to cover their noses and breathe through their mouths to avoid gagging from the stench. It was almost too much to handle.
Before the investigators could proceed any further, they needed to consider their own health and safety. So, they called in quarantine officers to supervise as they unpacked the rest of the bags. What they found left them feeling sick to their stomachs…
In the picture above you can see a bag of coal next to the contents of one of the other bags. It’s the brown stuff in the background that was giving off that horrible smell.
A Scaly Situation
Everyone was very confused by the contents of the bags, but after some careful investigation, the officers were able to reveal their findings to the public. They announced, “Our preliminary inspection determined they were pangolin scales.” In total, the bags contained 13.1 tons of pangolin scales.
If you want to find out more about what pangolin scales actually are, you have to continue on to the next page. Trust me, if you’ve never seen a pangolin, you are seriously missing out.
Wait, What Are They?
This wasn’t just a huge amount of scales; in fact, it was the largest bust of illegal pangolin byproducts ever made by Chinese officials. Specialists estimated that these scales had to come from a whopping 30,000 different pangolins. Investigators were desperate to catch the people responsible for this crime and to stop them before they could cause any further damage.
In order to remove the pangolin’s scales, you have to kill the pangolin.
So What Are Pangolins?
This is a pangolin with all of its scales intact. Pangolins, which look similar to armadillos, are the most trafficked animal in the world. Because of poaching and smuggling, this creature is seriously endangered. Now you know why it was so terrible that all of those scales were discovered in that shipping crate.
The world just can’t afford to lose 30,000 pangolins. We need to be saving them, not killing them for their scales.
A Stellar Defense Mechanism
Pangolins tend to curl up into little balls when they feel scared or threatened. This makes them all too easy for traffickers to scoop up and sell. You know how most animals have a fight or flight instinct?
Well, pangolins have more of a curl up and don’t move instinct. Their hard scales protect them to some extent, but their scales can’t protect them from people who want to harm them.
The Power of the Scales
So why are their scales so valuable and why are so many of them being smuggled across borders? It may be because of the role they play in traditional Chinese medicine.
Even though there is no scientific evidence to support it, many people in China believe that eating pangolin scales can cure a number of illnesses, like asthma, arthritis, and even cancer. It’s considered a cure-all drug.
They Don’t Want To Be Eaten
Some people even believe that eating pangolin meat can have a healing effect, though, in reality, eating pangolins is illegal and anybody who breaks this law can be sentenced to ten years in prison.
The pangolin has been granted protection by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, but this doesn’t stop criminals from rapidly depleting their numbers. Some people would rather earn money illegally than protect a beautiful creature.
Solving The Case
Unfortunately, investigators in the case of these shipping crates didn’t have much to work with when it came to identifying the criminals responsible for murdering close to 30,000 pangolins.
The only information available was the name “XIA × HUA” written on the shipping forms. With no other leads to go off of, the label on their shipping crate was their only hope. They were going to need to work very hard if they were going to get to the bottom of this.
Calling For Backup
The investigators decided that they were going to need more help if they were ever going to solve this case. They decided to call in a team that was dedicated to shutting down smuggling operations. The experts identified the pangolin scales as being African in origin. Using the name on the shipment and this location, they were able to narrow down the list of potential suspects.
This is why it’s important to always ask for help when you need it.
Success At Last!
The initial list of suspects contained dozens of potential leads for investigators, and they were vigilant in researching each one. They had to go through hundreds of documents and make a whole bunch of house calls to narrow down their search. They were able to rule out many possible suspects and they eventually arrested two men named He and Li.
The investigators’ patience and hard work definitely paid off and they were able to make the world a little bit safer for pangolins.
The Identity of the Criminal
Li was a known smuggler who had successfully evaded capture for years. He completely denied having anything to do with the scales—even when photographs of them were found on his cell phone.
He said that he had bought the phone off somebody else, and those pictures must have been left on the phone from the previous owner. I don’t think so, Li. It seems as though this guy was caught red-handed.
He’s Not Above the Law
At first, the investigators thought that Li had them in between a rock and a hard place. If he could prove that the phone was purchased secondhand, then there was no way they could hold him in custody without more evidence of his involvement in the crime.
The investigators had gotten this far though, and they were almost certain that Li was their guy. They weren’t going to give up so easily.
A Fatal Flaw
However, for someone so experienced at committing crimes, Li had made one serious mistake: In a photograph of the scales, the photographer had also accidentally captured an image of his foot! His foot had an identifying trait, too: a mole.
Investigators were able to compare the foot in the photo with Li’s actual foot and that was all the proof they needed. The investigators were literally one step ahead of the criminal.
Li and He Had Been Partners For Some Time
The investigators discovered that Li and He had been partners for quite a while. The two had made an astounding $758,000 in business dealings together. Li was responsible for shipping the product, while He was responsible for making sales and making sure their clients got what they paid for.
Unfortunately for Li and He, it looks like the jig is up. They’re not going to be able to make money off of pangolins anymore.
The Two Were Finally Arrested
After they were arrested, the criminals and their crimes were reported to the General Administration of Customs. While Li and He were definitely collaborating with each other, there was no way of knowing how many other criminals and smugglers were involved.
For all we know, these two could be two of many, hundreds even. Pangolin scales are big business even though they’re illegal business. Hopefully, other people in the pangolin trade see what happened to Li and He and decide to leave the industry for good.
Look How Cute They Are!
Serious efforts may be underway to protect the species, but it’s still not enough to ensure pangolins are safe. The International Fund for Animal Welfare made a statement that read, “More needs to be done so we don’t see pangolins go extinct within our lifetime.”
I really hope that this change happens sooner rather than later so that our children and our children’s children can see wild pangolins thriving in the wild.