Hong Kong customs officials have seized $2 million-worth of scales from the endangered pangolin, or "scaly anteater", authorities said Tuesday, in their biggest such haul in five years.
Officials intercepted two shipments bound for Southeast Asia containing three tonnes of pangolin scales from Africa around the end of last month, amid a rise in illegal smuggling of the species.
Pangolin scales are prized as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine while the rare anteater's tough, scaly skin is also used in fashion accessories in Asia.
Prices on the black market have surged in recent months as illegal trade has boomed, partly to meet growing demand from mainland China, according to activists.
"The seizure was the largest in five years for Hong Kong," a customs spokeswoman told AFP, adding that the raids uncovered 3,300 kilos (8,160 pounds) of the scales, worth about HK$17 million (USD$2.19 million).
"Customs officers selected a shipment arriving from Kenya for inspection and found about 1,000 kilos of pangolin scales. With subsequent intelligence gathered... customs officers found about 2,340 kilos of pangolin scales," a customs statement said.
One man has been arrested in connection with the haul.
The larger shipment originated from Cameroon disguised as sawn timber.
Pangolins are small, insect-eating mammals covered nearly entirely with keratin scales -- the same protein that makes up human hair.
The scales are used in Chinese traditional medicine to treat allergies and boost male virility, while the meat is also considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam.
But activists say it is a myth that pangolin has medicinal properties.
"There are still many people in Asia, notably in Vietnam and China, who mistakenly believe that consuming pangolin scales or rhino horn can cure cancer and other illnesses. It cannot," Alex Hofford, a Hong Kong-based consultant to the charity WildAid, told AFP.
"The increase in the price of pangolin scales reflects the spiralling price of rhino horn, as pangolin is often used as a substitute for rhino horn," he said.
Prices per kilo have risen to HK$5,000 from HK$2,000 five years ago, the South China Morning Post quoted an unnamed government source saying.
Trade in pangolins is banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.